If you told people in 1967 that Andy Warhol’s house band just released one of the most revered rock albums of all time, they would ask what their name is, and when you tell them, they would laugh. On the audience side, there were a hundred acts capable of this historic success in the ’60s, and none called the Velvet Underground (or Nico).
To some extent, they would be right. It will be another decade before the ornate banana The Velvet Underground & Nico would have its pop cultural boom and more than half a century before avant-garde group glam received definitive documentary treatment by one of the best living filmmakers. But as history and said doc proved, we would have the final say in this exchange.
The striking mood of writer-director Todd Haynes The velvet metro–– his first feature-length documentary but far from his first foray into music –– can be summed up in two works that you may already know. First, “Venus in Furs”, the fourth bohemian track from the group’s debut in 1967, known for its sadomasochistic lyrical provocation and slow, loud instrumentation, with John Cale’s amiable viola and innovative ostrich guitar. by Lou Reed (all strings tuned to the same note). The cacophony of sound bursts onto the stage without an introduction, setting the pace and tone.
Dark, hypnotic music seems to generate through the film from scratch, just as the band suddenly surfaced the unknown from the underground after Reed’s solo success in the ’70s. The track plays on the card of dizzying golden title and returns more often than any other, acting more like a thematically harmonious score than something taken from the discography. He founds Haynes’ doc in the sumptuous sonic monotony on which this group was founded.
The second, equally repetitive, mood-setting piece is Andy Warhol’s ‘Screen Tests’, a series of short films – played correctly at 16 frames per second to create aesthetic dissonance – – in which subjects also stare as possible the camera for a few minutes. Using only a small portion of the center of the frame, Haynes uses a split screen feature that loops Reed’s screen test on the right side and archival footage of his life on the left.
Over time, Reed’s fixed face fades away and begins again on the left, where it ends up extinguishing before coming back to the other side; Cale’s screen test is used in the same way. It is incredibly touching. When else do we have the opportunity to contemplate the soul of an artist while learning about his life? Some might find the technique, and the rest of Haynes’ direction, uninspired, but such criticism should be lodged with the band itself.
In essence, the Choice communicates its approach by telling the story of the Velvet Underground – to reflect the singular artistry of the group, not to achieve full comprehension of an encyclopedic entry. Cale was known to want to hold a note and listen to all the variations, beauties and subtleties within, like a sustained riff for the duration of a track. Haynes aims to do the same, visually, with his subjects.
Lead guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen / Moe Tucker don’t have any Warhol movies opposite, so their sections are split up with other archival footage and, in Tucker’s case, a current interview. Cale, the only other living member of the original four, also speaks to us in the present tense. While Tucker and Morrison were essential to the sound of the band, Cale and Reed get the most attention as they are most responsible for the pioneering qualities of the Velvet Underground. Reed wrote wild songs and sang them like no one else; Cale brought natural harmonics and an avant-garde sense, La Monte-esque of extended time still unheard of in the pop-rock arena.
Haynes leaves interpretive digs down to the awe-inspiring zoo of first-hand talking heads: filmmaker and friend Jonas Mekas, film critic and Warhol club member Amy Taubin, and short-lived band members including L he involvement arose out of the turmoil that preceded them. The same people, along with audio recordings of the deceased, detail delicious inner balls.
They talk at length about the New York City apartment Ludlow St. which led to the group’s early alternate versions, like the Primitives and the Dream Syndicate. They recount how the Velvet Underground played “Heroin” at their Factory audition, shattering the elegance of most Factory artists. We learn that at first they didn’t like Nico because she couldn’t hold the pitch, and that Warhol’s mere presence in the studio allowed them to record whatever they wanted.
Haynes traces the group’s amphetamine belly once distilled in White light / white heat, a triumph of Cale’s experimental wit and Reed’s mastery of lyrical storytelling that had absolutely no commercial value and sold as such. We learn how Reed got rid of Warhol and Cale; how Morrison left, Tucker suffered and Reed finally took off on his own. But Haynes gives us a restorative coda in Reed’s rehab, with audio of Reed talking about reconnecting with everyone and beautiful footage of them hanging out.
It’s not the most entertaining version of a Velvet Underground documentary, but it’s the most faithful to the group. Haynes focuses on character and the new elements they brought to the table which, like elements of modern art, are best captured through philosophies and conceptual understanding, as they are here. Ultimately The velvet metro is proof of an ever-more crystallized cinematic truth: Give a great director some cash and access to their favorite band’s archives, and you’ve got a winner.
The velvet metro premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and will be released on October 15 in theaters and on Apple TV +.