Film Review: The Velvet Underground Documentary


Amin Shah, Music Editor

The highly anticipated documentary about the provocative and esoteric band “The Velvet Underground” by Todd Haynes released October 15th exclusively on Apple TV, so being the misfortuned Samsung owner I am, I had to go see it at Lincoln Center. It did not disappoint in the slightest, as it was the best movie I had seen this year. The cinematography along with the great interviews from former bandmates and associates made for one of, if not the best, documentary I had ever seen. Before I get into the review though, a quick artist profile on the band would probably allow for more context of this review.

Artist Profile:
Formed in 1964 in New York City, the American band fronted by lead singer-songwriter Lou Reed and consisting of John Cale, lead guitarist Sterling Morrison, and drummer Moe Tucker in 1965 (Angus MacLise in 1964). Their commercial success was non-existent, as they were an extremely underground New York City group in the 60s, but they turned out to be one of the most influential bands of all time due to their innovative avant-garde sound along with their rock and roll roots. Managed by Andy Warhol in 1965, the group’s free expression was a staple for their sound and their unpopular anti-hippie movement. As they grew more creative and made more music, the more separate they grew. They grew so separate that Lou Reed virtually kicked out John Cale, one of the leading creative minds of the group, therefore turning the group into another basic rock band of the time (albeit still making some of the best music of the time). Tensions grew high after the lead guitarist left, as Lou Reed abandoned the group and that seemed to be the end of it. Although those who were still alive seemed to regroup in the 90s for a few live performances, Lou Reed died in 2010 due to liver cancer, cancelling any future possibilities beyond then. They are most notably known for their debut album “Velvet Underground and Nico”, featuring female artist Nico, who is known for her unorthodox vocal style.

Film Review:
With the background out of the way, the review can finally go underway. The film discussed many of these focal points in much greater detail, with interviews from associates, bandmates, and even Lou Reed himself before he passed, enforcing these events. Much more was discussed, as John Cale wrapped the concept of combining his classical knowledge along with the rock that Lou brought to the band. He described the creation of his “drone” sound he makes within the albums he appears in, which is apparent as one listens to their debut album. It lingers while adding a layer to the sound that the band makes, and as Jonathan Richman states quite well, while each band member made a definitive sound of their own, some sounds that the band made together were indiscernible, as the band let out a sound that was not only unique (in the sense that they would never perform the same way again after each performance), but highly influential as well. Andy Warhol is further discussed in accordance with his importance to the band, as before he became their lead manager, they had not much creative freedom when it came to their songwriting. As Andy Warhol attended more and more of their performances, the greater his interest grew, so he became their manager. He let them roam as free as they wanted, creating songs that would never hit the radio stations, but would cater to their own desire of what they wanted to do, and Andy Warhol approved. He also allowed them not only to become a highly creative rock group, but formed them into an art collective, as their performances in Andy Warhol’s highly regarded “Factory” garnered a lot of attention in the underground scene. There is so much more to dive into, but I highly recommend it to those who are interested in listening to the band who inspired acts such as U2, The Talking Heads, David Bowie, The Strokes, Joy Division, Arctic Monkeys, and so many more.

The Details:
Artistically, this documentary is commendable. The iconic shots of the band it features along with risky cinematography that nearly crosses the line of too provocative is appreciated, as it shows Todd Hayes takes risks to display the true nature of New York City in the 60s, as it was not pretty. This movie is definitely not for everyone, as the content is very mature and the cinematography is jarring, making for a disorienting experience if one is not used to the New York art scene of the 60s. The use of homo-erotic themes is also present in the art of Andy Warhol and the life of Lou Reed (who was bisexual), as Lou Reed was electroshocked by his parents in order to “shock the gay away” as stated by his parents. The use of the rising intensity within the songs that were chosen fit the overall moods of those certain scenes, as they display either major accomplishments or lows that the band faced. The song choices themselves were great, as most of them were from the eponymous debut album while others were from albums such as “Loaded” or their grey album. The movie is almost split into segments, as it begins with the roots of Lou Reed and John Cale (as the movie is mostly centered around those two along with Andy Warhol) and then turns into the evolution of their careers. The latter half of the movie would then consist of the band’s formation and their demise. The director makes it clear that these people were not the best, but their lives lead to one of the greatest and culturally significant events in music history. The depiction of their lives and personalities were significant, especially with Lou Reed, as he was highly flawed but highly talented, making him an adventurous addition to the band. This movie is an easy 10/10 for me. It really hit their significance home and I’m just happy to see one of my favorite bands of all time get their justice done on the big screen.