The art-rock-noise band The Velvet Underground shatters and recreates listeners’ wisdom of what rock-‘n’-roll is. It’s encouraging and true that Todd Haynes’ new film about them will do the same for a music documentary.
However, be aware that viewers who come to Haynes’ two-hour film “The Velvet Underground” are looking for primers about the band, Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen “Mo” Tucker, Nico, Andy Warhol, Mary Woronov, The Factory, and their names and locations. Other famous people may find the experience confusing. Despite the presence of traditional documentary elements, and a largely linear story that draws you through some 20 years of cultural history, Haynes and his collaborators make the experience feel new and surprising, assembling the component parts with the goal of creating not just a film, but an experience—something. what you feel, the way you might feel on a drum during a live music performance: in your stomach.
Interview subjects present at the time—including Velvet Cale’s co-founder, a Welsh classical musician; Mo Tucker, their signature drummer; actress and painter Woronov; my colleague Amy Taubin, a seasoned film critic; and the late co-founder of the Anthology Film Archives Jonas Mekas, who died shortly after his interview—providing commentary and insight, alternating between taking a “far view” of things and plunging us into the middle of it all.
Like another great 2021 music documentary, Questlove’s “Summer of Soul,” this film appears to have deliberately adopted the structure of a mid-twentieth-century vinyl album—the kind with songs arranged in tracks meant to be experienced in a linear fashion, first Side A and then later. Side B, straight, non-stop. Every few minutes, editing shifts emphasis so that you change not only the music track but also the intellectual track: as on a railroad track, as in “one-track mind,” or “framework.”
Under Haynes’ watchful eye, cutters Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz let the material flow and change direction, roll back, eat itself recursively, diverge, then return to the main point. Singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman dissects the band’s musical choices, imitating Reed’s vocals and Cale’s drone backdrop, blending the enthusiasm of fans with the assertiveness of the working musicians. Woronov humorously contrasts the sour and gloomy version of the 1960s New York counter with its California equivalent, ridiculing peace, love, and the power of flowers as political dissenters. Taubin criticizes Factory sexism, where women, including lead singer Nico, are rewarded for their appearance above all else.
The effect is less like sitting in a classroom and presenting facts to you than listening to semi-improvised Velvet Underground jam while reading a coffee table book or picture website about the band, and reflecting on the connection between the music bands make and events happening in the world around them. It’s an information feedback loop, creating the cinematic equivalent of the hypnotic drone that flows beneath so many Velvet Underground songs, and the insightful Cale that tells us is modeled on the “60-cycle drone” of equipment and machinery from that period in history, the current. under the sonic of modern life.
There’s something else going on here, involving overlapping dialogue and musical cues and split-screen images, and it’s just as interesting: Haynes seems to be trying to find an era of streaming on par with the multimedia sound and light shows Warhol and his friends are doing. and the “inventions” that were commonly staged around New York in the 60’s — music/dance/poetry/cinema “events” consisted of Velvet performing songs, films projected on musicians, selected audiences operating floodlights, and so on . Haynes and cinematographer Ed Lachman recorded today’s interviews in Warhol’s “close-up” film fashion, with even lighting and solid-colored backgrounds, in old-fashioned “academic ratios” images that are closer to squares than rectangles. The style feels classic and fresh, subtly channeling footage shot by Warhol and other filmmakers adjacent to the Factory at the time, some of which is also featured here.
The various material is arranged in a split-screen composition that evokes Warhol’s “Chelsea Girls”, a quasi-documentary “experience” ideally presented in a theater where two 16mm film projectors run simultaneously, displaying images side by side as soundtracks overlap to create a dissonant soup of dialogue, music, and noise. During the opening portion of the film, half of the split-screen image is a grisly Warhol closeup of young Lou Reed staring blankly for several minutes.
Sometimes an adjacent split-screen panel will be filled with whatever image the expert witness told you in voiceover. Other times you might see an out-of-focus image of Manhattan taken from a moving vehicle, or the psychedelic burst of sunlight that occurs when a roll of film runs out as it passes through the camera gate, or three or six or twelve related images flashing in a grid.
In addition to new and old material that is directly relevant to the band (including early “music video” footage, and shots of them racing in New York, Los Angeles, and other places), you also see images from filmmakers operating Contemporaries of the Factory or inspired them, from Warhol’s ever-evolving kissing films and footage from his epic static shot “Empire” to Kenneth Anger’s “Scorpio Rising” fragment. Square images that are presented singly are often pushed to the extreme left or right side of the rectangular frame, making you realize the darkness is not the image. This never felt like a sham because so many expert witnesses, Cale in particular, emphasized that the Velvet Underground was unique in that it valued negative space, and was about taking things rather than adding them.