“The Velvet Underground”: A Love Letter to a Restless Culture
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In a new Todd Haynes documentary, “The Velvet Underground,” the world gets a deep view into not only the story of the eponymous band itself but also the story of the movement that the band was a product of. Formed in New York City in 1964, The Velvet Underground was known for its avant-garde, artistic style and variety of sound. On their first album, “The Velvet Underground and Nico” (1967), a wide range of talent is shown almost instantly in the polar sounds of songs like “Sunday Morning” and “Venus in Furs.” Alone, “The Velvet Underground” could represent the whole of the avant-garde art movements of the ‘60s, but this documentary pays tribute to the overall scene and the band’s unique place within it.
The documentary begins on the harsh opening notes of its 1967 song “Venus in Furs,” which then cuts off into a series of clips from 1950s television, including a program featuring later band member John Cale, with interluding videos of band members. In typical documentary fashion, the film starts off with recounts of Lou Reed (guitarist and lead singer) and John Cale’s (multi-instrumentalist) upbringings, but with a focus on certain restrictions they faced growing up that impacted their artistic development. In addition, the documentary touches on the influence that the beat generation of the ‘50s and writers such as Allen Ginsberg had on them. The writers of the beat generation were known for, among other things, their open exploration of taboo topics and societal criticism. Along with the band’s beginnings, the film also includes the story of its gradual breakup and gives an admirative view of its story as a whole.
The documentary does not remain in this style for long, though. During its two-hour run, the film looks outward into the world The Velvet Underground was experiencing. Most of its time is spent painting a picture of the society of the New York art scene during the ‘60s and how it shaped both the band and the rest of the artists.
Paired perfectly with songs both by the band and by other artists of the time, clips from the documentary provide an insider view of the scene. Along with that, the film also features works of Andy Warhol paired with commentary from other artists that explore both the entirety of the scene and the inner-workings of the band. Through recounts from both an insider and outsider perspective of the group, the film is able to tell the whole story of the time. The fast-paced cuts are fitting for the lifestyle they depict, with scenes of high-energy shows and parties. Andy Warhol, who served as the band’s manager for some time, also plays a prominent role in the story. As one of the opening works, Warhol’s screen-tests repeatedly appear throughout the film as a contrast to the dynamic life of artists in New York at the time. Warhol is also credited with introducing the band to Nico, a German singer who collaborated with the band on their first album and became an integral part of the group’s sound.
In addition to Warhol’s works, his studio, The Factory, also serves as a focal point for the film. Not only were many of the band’s pieces completed there, but the studio was also something of an artistic haven and a venue for lively parties. The film features footage from Warhol’s “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable” (1966-1967), a series of events performed by The Velvet Underground and other artists of the time that used experimental multimedia. Along with shows, The Factory and Warhol also produced hundreds of films, many of which featured uncensored scenes with controversial ideas of sexuality and sexual orientation. Other than being a love letter to art spaces of the ‘60s, the film also offers a critique of certain ideas about women in the art world. In an interview, author Amy Taubin acknowledges the value of looks in the scene and how beauty was one of the only things valued in women. Along with that, the film delves into Nico’s experience, going from her unremarkable introduction to the band to her subsequent evolution into an essential part of their sound. The art scene of ‘60s New York, and specifically the work surrounding Andy Warhol, is presented by the film as a progressive place full of experimental opportunity with an avant-garde spirit.
As a whole, the film gives a new look into the unique run of The Velvet Underground. At the same time, the documentary provides a lively glance into the lives of the innovative artists who spanned genres in the mid-1960s. Capturing the spirit of the band and the era, “The Velvet Underground” is able to draw a world almost 60 years past those days into their world and bring it right back to the current age through retrospective accounts. Yes, it’s a documentary about The Velvet Underground, but it’s also about a culture—a thrilling, exhilarating, and rebellious culture.