The Velvet Underground (2021)
Directed by: Todd Haynes | 121 minutes | documentary, music | Starring: Lou Reed, John Cale, Merrill Reed Weiner, John Waters, Mary Woronov, Barbara Walters, Jonas Mekas, Jackson Browne, Jonathan Richman, Allen Ginsberg, Maureen Tucker, Danny Fields, Amy Taubin, Sterling Morrison, Martha Morrison, La Monte Young, Angus MacLise, Richard Mishkin, Henry Flynt, Doug Yule
This documentary about one of the most influential bands ever has all the signs of a definitive one. In a hyperactive visual style, referencing both early cinema and contemporary split screens, Todd Haynes (‘Carol’) starts with flashy images of the 1960s, quickly culminating in a literary biographical episode in which the main band members of The Velvet Underground , Lou Reed and John Cale, are introduced.
‘The Velvet Underground’ is ideally suited for screening in a cinema. When watching on the computer or TV, the concentration on image and story must tolerate too many stimuli from elsewhere. But hey, that goes for most movies. Watching in this case, however, is a cerebral operation that requires all the attention. For the fans a lot is already known, if well read; for the layman, ‘The Velvet Underground’ will not be an easy introduction.
An important source, due to Reed’s demise, is Lou’s sister Merrill – a clear voice compared to her manipulative brother, who is an excellent songwriter and great to talk about, but his unruly nature wrapped in narcissism. A sister can paint a more complete picture. The other band members are interesting, especially the musical influence of the classically trained Cale and the charisma of ‘chanteuse’ Nico. However, it is Reed who was the backbone of the band.
Cinematographic aspects (a lot of black and white) are strongly present, but ultimately lose out in this classically chronological, well-documented film. Interesting is archival footage of Warhol visiting Reed in his apartment in the mid-1970s. Haynes is clearly an enthusiast, and never falls out of his professional role. Essential? New. Then read the Reed biography ‘Transformer’ by Victor Bockris, watch the documentary Nico Icon (available on YouTube) and buy one of the remastered music releases.