Directed by: Todd Haynes
Premise: A documentary about Lou Reed and the band The Velvet Underground. The film traces Reed’s background and the way the band’s music was interconnected with the art scene of the 1960s and 70s.
What Works: The Velvet Underground is a legendary band and filmmaker Todd Haynes brings the group’s story to the screen as a uniquely cinematic production. This is fundamentally a talking-head retrospective but Haynes and his crew cut a lot of the heads out of it. The documentary frequently plays in split screens with archival footage and other visuals narrated by a collection of voices. The filmmakers only occasionally cut to the headshots of the interviewees. This keeps the material lively and unpredictable and the unusual style suits the band’s own unconventional music. Retrospective documentaries like this are typically exercises in myth-making. They recite the band’s origin story and illustrate why they are so revered. The Velvet Underground succeeds at this and the filmmakers go deep enough to be instructive to fans of the band as well as newcomers. It visually and aurally demonstrates how the band was unique by getting into some of The Velvet Underground’s technical and musical innovations. But what is especially interesting about this documentary is the way it contextualizes the band and their music. The Velvet Underground grew out of the avant-garde art scene of the 1960s and 70s and the filmmakers link The Velvet Underground to Andy Warhol as well as developments in film and literature at that time. But the band also existed also outside the flower power fad popular at the time. This makes the documentary not only a portrait of a band and its musicians but also a cultural moment.
What Doesn’t: The musical selections of The Velvet Underground are somewhat limited and repetitious. The filmmakers keep using pieces of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “Venus in Furs.” The film addresses The Velvet Underground’s unique sound and how it was created but the film might have illustrated that in a more meaningful way by including deeper cuts from the band’s oeuvre and allowing the songs more room to breathe. The end of The Velvet Underground comes across a bit truncated. The early portions of the film connect The Velvet Underground with the art scene of the time but the ending of the film doesn’t make any broader connections with the dissolution of the band and the direction of the culture.
DVD extras: Available on Apple TV.
Bottom Line: The Velvet Underground is a fittingly unconventional documentary about the band and their musical legacy. The filmmakers bring a cinematic style to the retrospective genre and delve into the details of a fascinating subject.
Episode: #889 (January 30, 2022)