Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Oct 13, 2021 10:01 am 
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TODD HAYNES: THE VELVET UNDERGROUND (2021) - Mill Valley Film Festival


A beautiful look at the short-lived but seminal rock band

This is one of the most visually stunning music documentaries I've ever seen, and it concerns a band that, though little publicized, is considered by some as influential as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, or Bob Dylan, but about which there's never been a film before. In a 2013 YouTube review of the band's first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico , Anthony Fantano, "internet's busiest music nerd," calls the four LP's the band issued from 1967 to 1970 "one of the most influential discographies in rock music - ever." (For details of the making of the first album, go here). No wonder this mew film debuted at Cannes and is one of the doc stars of the year.

The exquisite visual quality this film maintains, even within a conventional music documentary format, reflects some of the dash and originality Haynes put into his six-actor cubist Bob Dylan portrait I'm Not There (NYFF 2007). This time the striking look may partly arise from the need to compensate for an almost total lack of live concert footage of the band. (Where were all Warhol's cameras when we needed them?) The solution is extensive use of split-screen, which continues through the entire film. That includes highly effective use of Warhol's "screen test" portrait, his 100-foot-reel 16mm static B&W Bolex movies of people at the Factory just staring into the camera. Haynes' opening fifteen minutes or so are dazzling. He has clips from "I've Got a Secret" where John Cale was brought in for his having performed a John Cage composition in which a single page of musical notes had to be played over 800 times leading to an 18-hour performance.

Oddly, Haynes spends more time on Cale than lead singer/song writer Lou Reed for the first forty minutes. He appears to want to depict the band as more avant-garde, as Cale was, than rock n' roll, as Reed was. (And Cale was available to interview now and Reed is gone.) Haynes uses the expressionless Warhol-filmed screen test face of young Lou Reed in split-screen-flanked by shifting random archival footage to illustrate a voice-over from his sister about his suburban childhood.

There are contrasting split screens of monochrome film clips toned in solid colors throughout. All through, the handsome use of split-screen makes this look like an art film, a museum piece. Bit split-screen is also a way to pack in two or three times as much visual information and still make it look good on the screen. Haynes's editors, Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz, deserve credit for how well this works to tell a story as well as delight the eye.

The elegance is most welcome in a usually tired genre. But it means room has been left for future, more dogged docs on the band. Missing here are details of the unique drumming style of Maureen Tucker ("Moe"), not to mention more about the complex emotional dynamics of the group that led Lou Reed to "fire" Andy Warhol and soon after John Cale and then walk away from the band himself.

We do get the band's beginnings, when its name got changed constantly because they were so bad at that point they had to hide who they were to get hired. When they become the Velvet Underground, with Reed, Cale on viola, keyboard, and other instruments, Moe Tucker on drums, and guitarist Sterling Morrison, it was after being seen at Cafe Bizarre that they were invited to Warhol's Factory and became its house band. Warhol brought in the German model and actress Nico, who had appeared in Fellini's La Dolce Vita, to sing with the band, which Reed didn't like, but which worked.

It's okay for this to be for a while yet another Warhol doc because it shows how the Factory, as Cale says, "was all about work." Warhol's collaboration led to his traveling multimedia show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable developed (from the sound of it one can't say "refined") at the Dom hall in St. Mark's place (1966–1967), a touring silver balloon and sound and light show incorporating the band. It feels as though these Dom multimedia performances, attended by society people and where Nureyev and the whole New York City Ballet came and danced, represented a high point in the band's life.

The tour took them to the West Coast, not a positive story. As Moe the drummer recounts, and others mention, the Velvet Underground hated hippies: instead of giving flowers to people, Moe says, they should find them places to live. Even if the Velvet used drone sounds, their style was mostly very hard-edge. California didn't seem to get them. (According to John Waters, neither did Cape Cod.) When they performed at Bill Graham's Fillmore West, Graham openly wanted them to fail. Nonetheless their sound-and-light show proved far more sophisticated than his. West Coast light shows, it's said, consisted of projecting an image of the Buddha on a wall.

There is a softer side to the band. Anthony Fantana's discussion of "Sunday Morning" sung by Nico revels in its warmth and gentleness. Reed too could sing or chant in a very gentle voice. The complexities of the Velvet Underground's style aren't something this film fully unpacks for us.

In addition to being aggressive and hostile in person and an unreliable hard-drug user, Reed was also sexy and creative, recognizing the unity of writing as an activity, whether fiction, poetry, or song lyrics. What he brought to rock n' roll, David Bowie is heard saying here, was a mindset close to the French poètes maudits, to Baudelaire and Rimbaud - a literary sensibility a step beyond even the sophisticated song lyrics of Bob Dylan. And Reed was always writing. It's he who explores the sexualities of The Factory; the life of a prostitute; the experience of being a heroin addict who decides to "nullify" his life; and what it's like waiting for your dealer.

Warhol's connection with the band was obviously central, making them like the Factory "superstars" famous, but famous also in the service of Warhol. Allen Ginsberg, notably visible in the opening of the 1967 Pennebaker film about Bob Dylan Don't Look Back, also appears here as a Warhol cohort, reminding us how in the sixties American cultural (or "countercultural") figures were like a little band of brothers. Ginsberg nods also to the Lithuanian-born Jonas Mekas, who appears here as a talking head. He was the founder of Anthology Film Archive, godfather of American avant-garde film," and a major organizer of art events who died before this film was released at the age of 97. Warhol toured with the band, doing nothing as "producer" of their first album but get it produced through his celebrity and provide the 'banana" album cover. But he got them the album, and he gave them a lot of encouragement.

Personal antagonisms had been heightened by the pressures of the California tour. On the road there was increased use of speed, resulting on the focus of the White light/White Heat album and the in-fighting when it was being made back in New York after they found the Dom taken over by Bob Dylan.

The band is already disintegrating even though this is only the second of four albums. The gradual decline of a band is a familiar trope even Haynes's stunning visual stylishness can't make very original. But the film's imagery does some typically snappy stuff to evoke an amphetamine high. There is an explosion of split- and multiple-screen archival images at the end showing multiple careers post-Velvet for Reed, Cale, the others, and the 1990s temporary reunions of Reed and Cale, including their collaborative musical narrative portrait of the then late Andy Warhol,Songs for Drella.

The Velvet Underground, 110 mins., debuted at Cannes out of competition Jul. 7, 2021, and is included in some other major festivals, including Telluride, Zurich, New York, Chicago, Woodstock, BFI London. In reviews it has met with very high praise (current Metascore 88%). US release in theaters and on the internet Oct. 15, 2021.

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