Movie: The Velvet Underground (2021)

I cannot overstate how important the band The Velvet Underground has been in my life.

Almost immediately upon my first exposure to them, I strongly identified with a perceived artistic truth and purity in their music.  Something deeply resonated with me despite having never done illegal drugs or engaged in any less-than-conventional lifestyle choices. 

On the surface, I am solidly in the majority in almost every way one can slice-and-dice the demographics of my home country.  But then what is the point in exposing oneself only to art that is from perspectives with which one is familiar?  And the music of the Velvets reaches far beyond the groups represented by their subject matter: there is much that speaks to the experience of just being human, regardless of your background.

For those who were unfamiliar with the Velvets until after the mid 1990’s, it is unimaginable just how difficult it was to find significant information about them before then.  Aside from the four studio albums, additional recordings were limited to the single-disc Max’s and double-disc 1969 live collections, the VU and Another View roundups of stray studio recordings, and various bootlegs.  Fans were always left wanting more: more audio, more photos, more information.  The five-CD box set treasure trove Peel Slowly And See in 1995 brought so many revelations that, to this day, I still cannot believe it actually exists. 

This century has brought a wealth of books and expanded reissues.  Although any additional new material is welcome, each additional release has been less revelatory.  In their original epoch, this was a functioning outfit for only four years, so there’s only so much unearthing that can be done before one experiences the law of diminishing returns.  John Cale said of the 45th anniversary reissue box set of their debut that the album becomes a little less special with each additional re-release.

As much as I am loathe to admit it, Cale is onto something there.  Similar to the legacy of the band Big Star, great music remains no matter how much of the initial mystery is stripped away; however, that mystery still held so much allure. 

All of which leads me to Todd Haynes’s 2021 documentary The Velvet Underground.  This is a movie I suspect is trying to emulate the revolutionary nature of their music, utilizing split-screens and superficially unrelated footage (often from early avant-garde films, including Brakhage and Deren) to force their viewer to establish their own connections.

Curiously, this approach results in the viewer being rewarded proportionately based on what they already knew going into it.  I know I would have felt entirely lost if I hadn’t gone in with extensive knowledge of the band’s catalog, the background of each band member, Warhol, The Factory, and the literary intelligentsia of the day.  There was little here I did not know already to some extent, so it was only reinforcing what I already knew.  The one thing I can say was new and astonishing was filmed material of the band, which is the one vein of media not fully tapped yet.

Perhaps the best way to regard this film is as a love letter to the Velvets and, in that, it succeeds wildly.  On the other hand, as a lifelong fan, I walked away with little more than some images of the band I had not seen before.  And I pity newcomers whose gateway to the Velvets is through this movie.  For them, I heartily recommend the best introduction I can think of: the original albums.

Dir: Todd Haynes


Watched on: Criterion Collection blu-ray