Maybe it’s because I’m a longtime music lover, but I feel like it would be pretty hard to mess up a documentary on a famous music artist unless you have an obvious, deep-rooted bias. Take Todd Haynes’ new doc on the Velvet Underground, titled simply The Velvet Underground.
On the surface it’s a fairly basic introduction to the most famous alternative rock band of all time, but that might not be a surprise considering two band members are still with us and participating in the movie. Obviously no one wants to bring up personal drama or scandal while securing their legacies.
But since Haynes is an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, and very familiar with the band’s era as seen in his past films Superstar (1987), Velvet Goldmine (1998) and I’m Not There (2007), his direction, the editing, the new commentary from band associates and of course, the music itself make The Velvet Underground worthwhile.
In the midst of the 1960s counterculture, three New Yorkers, a Welshman and a German model come together in New York City to form a band that would help define a whole genre in music. The locals of the Velvet Underground were lead singer and songwriter Lou Reed, lead guitarist Sterling Morrison, and drummer Moe Tucker. John Cale was the bassist, keyboardist and viola player from overseas.
The group strikes up a relationship with avant-garde artist and celebrity Andy Warhol, who becomes their manager and recruits model-actress Nico as another vocalist and for sex appeal. Despite Reed and Cale’s lack of traditional showmanship, or Nico being borderline tone deaf, the band is a success. “The Velvet Underground & Nico” becomes one of the most influential and acclaimed albums of 1967.
Haynes’ new documentary would be a good double feature with Edgar Wright’s own classic rock period documentary The Sparks Brothers from earlier this year. Both groups were ahead of their time, as the old, tired expression goes, and both movie features are strictly about the bands’ origin stories and creative processes. In the case of the Velvets, their cult following grew a lot quicker than Sparks, mostly as a result of Reed and Nico’s successful solo careers.
Here with their self-titled picture, we get a retrospective strictly about band’s eight-year tenure, along with a recap of some of the cultural events that were relevant to the group’s history. Cale and Tucker are sadly the only band members still alive, but their narration along with that of contemporaries like actress Mary Woronov, film critic Amy Taubin, and musician Jackson Browne make for very effective commentary.
Particularly amusing is a moment where Tucker and Woronov trash talk California flower children, reminding us that the Velvets and other Warhol hangers-on were a part of a radical subgroup that made even hippies seem square.
Watching The Velvet Underground as a rock music fanatic, I didn’t learn anything especially new or groundbreaking. But it was nice to spend two hours seeing plenty of archival footage and photos of the band and famous friends like Edie Sedgwick and Bob Dylan.
If you’re new to alternative music and want a quick history lesson on the birth of it, Haynes’ documentary would be a decent starting point.