Writer/Director Todd Haynes is no stranger to the world of rock music. Among the dramas and thrillers of his filmography are music centric films such as Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There. He’s now ready to unleash his first officially documentary onto the world; an “in-depth” look at the revolutionary rock band, The Velvet Underground.
Formed in the mid-sixties, The Velvet Underground was originally comprised of Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker (more commonly referred to as Moe). As they tried to make a name for themselves, they garnered the attention of the famed artist and pop-culture guru, Andy Warhol. With the Warhol seal of approval attached, they were able to get their first album released– which featured the German Actor/Model/Folk singer, Nico. The rest as they say…is history.
The Velvet Underground starts off very promising. Footage and sounds of the time flash by the screen, peppered with some short audio from upcoming interviews. Then boom; the words The Velvet Underground crash onto the screen as–arguably their best song–Venus in Furs comes pulsating through at a loud, but not too alarming sound level. That’s how you kick off a film. What follows is what you’d expect. Stories and tales of the early life of Lou Reed come via previous interviews as well as through his family and friends. John Cale is in studio to talk about his early life and beginnings.
This goes on for awhile, and even as Cale has already moved to the US from Wales and has met Lou, there has yet to be a single mention of Sterling or Moe. I get it. Lou Reed and John Cale were the genesis of The Velvet Underground. Yet, for anyone who doesn’t really know the full background of the band, the film presents the addition and influence of Sterling and Moe as almost non-existent. For almost an hour, this is just the tale of Lou Reed and John Cale.
In fact, the film spends an awful amount of time getting to and focusing on The Velvet Underground and Nico; their first album. Once we get to their second album–White Light/White Heat–the movie shifts gears into fast forward mode. About 10-15 minutes is spent on the album and Cale leaving/being forced out by Lou. Then it is on to the next two albums–Velvet Underground and Loaded. It is at this time Doug Yule joins the band to replace Cale. His contributions to the band are covered by about 2 sentences and each album he had influence on, is covered by about 25 minutes total.
Look, I know the first album is an iconic album and a cultural icon for people who don’t even know the band or their music. But Nico is given quadruple the time being spoken about compared to Doug Yule, and she wasn’t really ever officially a member of the band. The Velvet Underground is two hours and covers the bands full discography of 4 albums. Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers is only a half an hour longer, but covers not only the groups full background, but 50 years and 25 albums. All but two get full and grand exposition. Yet, The Velvet Underground can’t give any really focus to anything but their debut album and the troubles of Lou Reed.
Sadly, this feels a lot less like a film about The Velvet Underground and much more like, “Lou Reed and Friends: The VU Years.” And hey, that’s fine if that’s the film you want to make. Though, you can’t call that film, The Velvet Underground. There is some great info here for people who don’t know anything other than the songs. Such as, Cale’s original experimental sound works and how his work with “Drone” sounds fit into creating the iconic first music of the band. I mean, you listen to that breakdown and play Venus in Furs again, and things just click.
That’s the tragic misstep that sends The Velvet Underground down the wrong path. There is plenty of fascinating information and interesting things to experience in sitting through the film, but this would have been better presented as part one of a two part expose on Lou Reed as the final product is definitely more a film about Lou Reed with The Velvet Underground as background fodder through the years.
Final Grade: C+