Director: Todd Haynes
The Velvet Underground is a loud and vibrant documentary that follows the legendary band from their beginnings through to Lou Reed leaving the band, shortly before the release of their 1970 album Loaded. It completely dismisses Squeeze, just as critics and a good number of Velvet Underground fans have. The film captures the Avant Garde nature of their music while also contextualising it within he social and art movements of the mid to late 1960s.
Any documentary about music needs to have great sound design and The Velvet Underground has that. From the opening titles, which has Venus in Furs played over the top of it, the music is loud and sounds perfect. Being able to see this film with a great sound-system/headphones is a must. The Velvet Underground’s music isn’t for everyone. They sounded different from anything else at the time and still sound unique today. The documentary isn’t going to win over people who haven’t gotten along with the band before. It will give you a true appreciation of what Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Moe Tucker were trying to create.
Todd Haynes paints a picture of what led to The Velvet Underground and their music through new and archival interviews. The surviving members of the classic line up, John Cale and Moe Tucker, are both interviewed alongside those that knew the band personally and archival recordings from Lou Reed and others such as David Bowie (Who also produced Lou Reed’s second solo album, Transformer).
Through two hours of archival footage, interviews and songs you get a greater idea of what The Velvet Underground are really about, although at the same time it does feel like there is still so much mystery about them when the film ends. This isn’t a traditional documentary, where there’s a narrator giving you background information with a list of dates, the film is told through snippets of information and interviews. It doesn’t offer definitive opinions on people but lets those that were there tell the stories they remember. At one point Lou Reed’s sister says that lots of people put a period of Reed’s life down to drugs or depression, but it’s not that simple to pinpoint it like that. There are other factors of the world around him and it’s not easy to explain why he wrote what he wrote.
At times the documentary does feel like it’s more focused on Lou Reed than the band as a whole. There is a focus on his early life and the film stops pretty much as he left the band in 1970. There is time given to everyone, but it’s clear that Lou Reed was the driving force behind the band, even if it wouldn’t have been possible without the other members, Nico and Andy Warhol.
The Velvet Underground offers a personal insight into the Avant Garde rock group from the surviving members of the band as well as those that were close to them. The bands discography has stood the test of time and whether you’ve loved the band since the mid-60s or found out about them much more recently, then this is definitely worth your time.