Combustible Celluloid Review - The Velvet Underground (2021), Todd Haynes, Todd Haynes, John Cale, Maureen Tucker, Mary Woronov, Jonathan Richman, Jonas Mekas, Doug Yule, Amy Taubin, Jackson Browne, Merrill Reed Weiner, La Monte Young
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With: John Cale, Maureen Tucker, Mary Woronov, Jonathan Richman, Jonas Mekas, Doug Yule, Amy Taubin, Jackson Browne, Merrill Reed Weiner, La Monte Young
Written by: Todd Haynes
Directed by: Todd Haynes
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexual content, nudity and some drug material
Running Time: 121
Date: 10/15/2021

The Velvet Underground (2021)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

All Yesterday's Parties

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Whereas many music documentaries follow a tired, talking-head formula, filmmaker Todd Haynes refreshingly crafts The Velvet Underground as its own work of art, inspired by the title band's unique creative vision.

The documentary charts the brief, yet powerful career of the innovative, influential rock band of the same name. Singer Lou Reed came from New York, a troubled, brilliant youth and a reader of edgy literature. Multi-instrumentalist John Cale came from Wales, a practitioner of the "drone" sound, or a use of sustained notes. Guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen "Moe" Tucker were New Yorkers who completed the quartet.

Their association with famous artist Andy Warhol led to the release of their landmark 1967 LP The Velvet Underground & Nico, which featured vocals by the alluring German chanteuse Nico. Fights among band members and a general disdain for the band by the mainstream caused them to split up after their fourth album, but their legacy endures.

Haynes, whose previous movies have touched on The Carpenters (Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story) and Bob Dylan (I'm Not There), as well as fictional versions of David Bowie and Iggy Pop (Velvet Goldmine) as well as a music video for Sonic Youth, clearly knows his music. The Velvet Underground is both an appreciation of a great band, and an explanation (hopefully available to newcomers) as to why they were great.

He employs amazing footage shot by Andy Warhol and others, and voice recordings of Reed, Morrison, and Nico, all of whom have passed away. He juxtaposes images in split-screens and at certain points even divides the screen up into 12 boxes, creating an artistic edge, a slight challenge to the viewer's perceptions.

Cale is a wonderful interviewee, brilliantly explaining how the band's sound emerged, and providing a center to the movie. Tucker explains her role as keeping the beat while Reed and Cale went off into an exploratory improvisation, so that she could "be there when they got back." Haynes includes early versions of songs to show how they evolved.

The movie also interviews uber-fan Jonathan Richman, who saw the Velvets 60-70 times and then became a musician and formed his own band (The Modern Lovers) under the tutelage of Morrison. Richman also provides some essential insights; he describes audiences being "hypnotized" by the music, remaining silent for a full five seconds after the end of a song. The Velvet Underground itself may or may not be hypnotic, but it helps place this great band in their historical context in a most powerful way.

The movie is available to subscribers of Apple TV+, but for those that prefer physical media, the Criterion Collection has released an excellent Blu-ray edition. It comes with an explosive Dolby Atmos audio mix that by itself puts it over the streaming version, and Haynes and cinematographer Ed Lachman approved the digital transfer. (There's also a second, regular stereo track.) Haynes provides a commentary track, aided by editors Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz. Bonuses include outtakes; a Zoom interview featuring Cale, Tucker, and Haynes (hosted by Jean Pelly); three complete avant-garde films that are featured in the documentary, a teaser trailer, and an "annotations" option, which identifies the various film clips used while watching. This is highly recommended.

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