The Velvet Underground
2021, R, 121 min. Directed by Todd Haynes.
REVIEWED By Tim Stegall, Fri., Oct. 15, 2021
Curious, the tepid-to-bad reviews filtering from Cannes this past summer over The Velvet Underground, Todd Haynes’ cinematic valentine to underground rock’s most influential band. Most notices read like a younger generation flexing its muscles, dismissing historically significant culture simply out of a misguided notion of Youth Asserting Itself: “Oh, this is from the past?! Never heard of them! Who cares?!” But the simple fact of the matter is: The Velvet Underground invented glam/punk/indie/noise in the Sixties, with more aplomb and ability than anyone attempting to stride in their Cuban-heeled wake to this day. Ask David Bowie, Jonathan Richman (a teenage Velvets devotee interviewed herein), Iggy Pop, the New York Dolls, most every early NYC punk act, Sonic Youth, the Jesus & Mary Chain, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club … or locals the Black Angels, named for a song on the first VU album.
Most nastiness seems directed at the film’s format. Haynes made some of cinematic history’s most controversial-if-effective outré rock hagiography: glam odyssey Velvet Goldmine, off-center Bob Dylan “biopic” I’m Not There. Here, he utilizes early-to-mid-Sixties New York experimental film techniques in telling this story. We’re talking the movie vocabulary of Jack Smith, Velvets patron Andy Warhol, or the late Jonas Mekas. His stature and excellent onscreen summations of the day’s downtown demimonde nets him a closing credits dedication. The naysaying misses how all that visual noise – split screens, manipulated stock footage, Lou Reed and John Cale’s static Warhol screen tests contrasted with audio interviews and scenes of their environment – perfectly illustrates the Velvets’ lo-fi aural screech and somber meditations. No band abraded assaultive noise and poetic beauty like the Velvet Underground. Haynes brilliantly matches the visuals with the subject and its art. Especially considering how little footage of the Velvet Underground exists.
What surprises is the rare footage Haynes dutifully excavated, including Cale’s pre-VU I've Got a Secret appearance. Then to get the principals’ testimonials, as well as those of true believers like Richman (“I was hearing this music that sounded like nothing else!” he gasps, before breathlessly describing their “strange melodies” and “phantom overtones”)? It’s all pure candy. Yes, Haynes gives Cale replacement Doug Yule little time, but he barely featured in the band – two albums? Sure, the band’s post-VU lives are handled in a one-minute montage, but this isn’t a film about their solo work. The Velvet Underground is exactly the movie the Velvet Underground deserves.
Read our interview with director Todd Haynes, "Chic Mystique," Oct. 15.