Making documentaries about their favorite bands becomes a bit of a rite of passage for successful directors. Ron Howard took over The Beatles (with Peter Jackson’s Get Back series on the way), Shane Meadows explored The Stone Roses, and this year Edgar Wright shared his love for Sparks. This week, director Todd Haynes (Carol, Dark Waters) takes a look at The Velvet Underground, delving into the times and influences that inspired its breakthrough.
The film does not introduce the group, assuming the majority of people watching will already be fans. Nonetheless, the tale is vaguely familiar, as the remaining band members discuss their backgrounds, inspirations, and experiences of being in New York City in the ’60s, pushing their knowledge of what is possible with sound. at the limit.
There are few ways to create a rock documentary, as most bands have a similar history – kids from tight backgrounds who discover a scene they connect with and form a band to express themselves. Haynes seems aware of this, so archiving their trip is a secondary concern. Instead, it offers a split-screen artistic adventure, surrounding the viewer with the sounds and sights of the era. It is the New York of Warhol, Ginsberg and many others, with archival films that meet with testimonials from talking heads. It’s a study of tone, and given Haynes’ history with musical films – the “non-biopics” I’m Not There and his first hit Velvet Goldmine – it’s appropriate for both him and the group that this documentary takes a different path.
That’s not to say the interviews aren’t enlightening. A procession of older musicians with disheveled hair and dark sunglasses tell what it was, with a tone that suggested it had to be there. The sounds and experiences they discuss play out on their words, almost born out of anecdotes. There are little moments of humor, like when founding member John Cale describes his move from the Welsh valleys to New York and is alarmed by the filth of the streets of Manhattan.
Lou Reed haunts the film, with snippets of interviews heard but not seen, his contemporaries speaking of him apocryphal, adding to his image of a figure too vibrant to be real. It’s the kind of myth he could have scoffed at, but the film eschews the hagiography that music documentaries often rely on.
The Velvet Underground offers an interesting look at the group and their era that will be, for fans, at least, essential viewing.