“The Velvet Underground” is the brilliant and daring documentary the band deserves, directed by Todd Haynes

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With John Cale, Maureen Tucker, Jonathan Richman, Jackson Browne, John Waters

Posted on October 18, 2021

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Just like listening to the band themselves, the superb documentary by Todd Haynes, The velvet metro, is an immersive sensory experience and an exploration of art, imagination and the power to give ideas a chance. This leaves the viewer thirsty. Forever? Probably we will see.

With a stuck split-screen visual aesthetic that marries Andy Warhol’s interest in filmed stillness and hard-eyed portraiture with the Technicolor mania of 1960s New York City, Haynes’ documentary is utterly gripping and, in its intelligent construction, illustrates the artistic vertigo and the cinematographic expression that it profiles. It’s pop art, with quick cuts of era television and film mingling with archival footage of places, buildings, and faces, famous and otherwise, lingering across the screen. , watch us watch them, each wondering what is going on in the minds of the others, but especially before any firm decisions are made.

There are insightful new interviews (filmed in 2018) with the original surviving band members (John Cale and Maureen Tucker), lovers and spouses, early collaborators and confidants, as well as remarkable and vivid perspectives from fans and contemporaries, including : the filmmaker on call Jonas Mekas (deceased since he took part in the film), Jonathan Richman (who says he saw the Velvets live, “60 or 70 times”), the musical impresario Danny Fields, the author- composer Jackson Browne, filmmaker John Waters and Warhol Superstars Mary Woronov and Amy Taubin, among others. Anyone who has died, including the group’s Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison, as well as David Bowie, appear via archival footage and disembodied audio interviews.

Using rare, demo, and instrumental recordings of the band’s songs before shocking us with the loud bang of their best-known released versions, the film bends time and space in such a disorienting way, we’re convinced we are. right next to his subjects, as contemporaries to their youth. And the point is, there is a lot to experience and learn about the human mind while hanging out with the Velvet Underground.

Informally, Haynes presents the group’s trajectory in a linear, albeit superficial, way. Profiling Reed, the film suggests that the struggles, rage, and emotional volatility of the late songwriter as a child, teenager and young adult led him to want to become a wealthy rock star at all costs, but also to his penchant for the extremes of life, such as abusing heroin. , exploring sexuality, or making unsettling audio and visual art (it was made to quell his same-sex attraction via electroconvulsive therapy and societal censorship). His sister Merrill Reed Weiner, who appears here, briefly takes issue with the idea that their parents are to blame for Reed’s suffering, alienation, meanness, and penchant for conflicting and opposing positions.

After some songwriting work for a small pop label, Reed met classically trained Welsh musician John Cale, whose interest in non-standard use of musical instruments, sustained sounds, alpha rhythms and drones – like late trailblazer John Cage and La Monte Young (who is featured in a new interview for the film) – strikes something deep within him. He and Cale (who also profess a love for the contagious obscurity of the Everly Brothers and The Beatles) begin to collaborate on improvised and composed music, imbued in large part by Reed’s taste for “Beat” and poets and writers. counter-cultural like William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg.

“There was a standard to be set,” Cale remarks, “for how to be elegant and how to be brutal.”

The bohemian city of New York in the mid to late 1960s was one hell of a drug. He was such a powerful character that Haynes presents him as any human subject here, with stunning, swirling visual interaction; the screen still dances and moves confidently, much like NYC 70 years ago.

This is the city in which revolutionary Pittsburgh artist Andy Warhol settled and created The Factory, an underground art center that has attracted a myriad of underground creators and set designers (from Bob Dylan to Jackie Kennedy have passed), who seemed to find all kinds of fun playing with life and its conventions in a daring and playful way while finding the avant-garde in the ordinary (but above all, as Taubin laments, among strikingly beautiful young people).

After their group The Primitives ran its course, Reed and Cale found like-minded souls in the Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker, formed the Velvet Underground (which had the potential to be like “Wagner-meets-Bo Diddley, “Cale remarks) and, via word of mouth from Factory’s henchmen (including taste-maker poet Gerard Malanga), caught the attention of Warhol, who saw the group as a fascinating new art project. He started managing and producing the group, organizing the multimedia series Exploding Plastic Inevitable in which the group starred and installing actor / model / musician Nico among them as an occasional singer.

This early explosion of auspicious activity sets the tone and is truly the core that Haynes’ documentary emanates from and takes over. This is where the imagination of the Velvet Underground feels most alive and limitless – when they and NYC seemed able to truly change the world of art and culture and, through some form of osmosis, the way. that we all thought, in general. And, according to the film’s calculation – by its very existence – the group and its peers made to change the world, even if their aura was not fully appreciated for what it really was until it was no more.

In the movie, beyond the band taking their first steps, the facts are the facts: The Velvet Underground would continue to play concerts and tours (“We were playing art shows and we were the show,” Tucker says. laughing), leave Warhol and Nico behind, make three more classic records (plus one more after Reed split), lose John Cale to Reed’s wrath, and win guitarist Doug Yule (pictured here by a brief sighting) voiceover), endure the cruel morning that shone upon the darkness of the factory (Warhol was shot and almost died), and Reed’s impulsive behavior as they moved forward, trying to “do it” by music by softening their sound to be more pop (ie “Sweet Jane”) before finally going their separate ways, with occasional reunions occurring over the following decades for special events and memorials . Though considered the gods and pioneers of all that is cool in music now, the Velvets worked in obscurity and derision when they were young and vibrant and scoffed to a bitter end; Morrison, Nico, Warhol, and Reed all died of illness or other health problems.

We only see Reed speaking on camera once at the end of The velvet metro, filmed pretty much in some sort of residential neighborhood in the 1980s perhaps, talking with an elderly Warhol about some artwork. Up to this point, Reed is only heard sporadically and is otherwise only seen through film footage and photographs, as if he’s more of an idea than a person.

In a way, that’s the heart of Haynes’ magnificent film: the power and strength of human ingenuity, of course, but also a celebration of believing in ideas, sticking to your convictions, against the odds and tides and the amazement of onlookers and standards.

There are clips shown here from September 16, 1963, when Cale appeared on the American game show I have a secret as a panelist and performer, long before the VU was even a glint in his eyes. After asking Cale to perform “Vexations” by Erik Satie 840 times in a row for a 6-hour concert, host Garry Moore makes the audience laugh (nervously, for fear of the unknown?) At the hard work of the classical musician. , as if it was nothing more than a novelty – so incomprehensible (and difficult), it is considered absurd.

Todd haynes The velvet metro does the opposite; it takes the group and their artistic contemporaries and the factory and the harmony and the noise and the constant hums and hums of the world and the beauty and the pollution and the expression of something primordial and different in life and defying the ideas deadly seriously. As it should have been, and as it should always be. (Apple)


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