Director Todd Haynes’ first foray into documentary filmmaking, The Velvet Underground, got rave reviews after its world premiere Wednesday at the Cannes Film Festival. And that bodes well for the music doc’s debut on Apple TV+ and in theaters on October 15.
The Velvet Underground: Rise of a cultural icon
The film tells the story of the avant-garde rock band‘s rise to cultural influence. Established in New York City in the mid-1960s, The Velvet Underground played under that name only until 1973, with a few personnel changes in the mix. The essential band consisted of frontman and guitarist Lou Reed, classically trained multi-instrumentalist John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen “Moe” Tucker.
But the group’s influence never really came to an end.
Andy Warhol gave the band a boost
That’s in no small part due to the involvement and influence of legendary pop artist Andy Warhol. He joined the group as manager in 1966, making The Velvet Underground the house band of his New York art collective and studio The Factory and the traveling multimedia show Exploding Plastic Inevitable in 1966-’67. The band would often play sonically adventurous and discordant music with Warhol films showing in the background.
Warhol also spurred the band’s association with the German-born signer Nico. He suggested she sing on their first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico.
The band never saw much commercial success, or even critical success in the early days. You might say the band was way too weird for the mainstream, with its discordant and droning sounds and sexually suggestive lyrics. But The Velvet Underground remains one of the most influential and lauded bands in rock history.
As music producer Brian Eno is famously quoted as saying, “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”
Haynes’ film captures the band and its context
The documentary features interviews with key players in and around The Velvet Underground, combined with a trove of never-before-seen performances and a collection of recordings, Warhol films and other experimental art.
“This is a great documentary about people who are serious about music and serious also about art, and what it means to live as an artist,” wrote Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian.
Critics seem impressed by the film’s inventive structure. They praised its extensive use of a split-screen and its immersion of the audience into a well-captured world of art, music and cultural ferment of another time.
“Making ingenious use of split-screen, experimental montage and densely layered images and sound over two fabulously entertaining hours, Haynes puts his distinctive stamp on the material while crafting a work that could almost have come from the same artistic explosion it celebrates,” wrote David Rooney in The Hollywood Reporter.
Haynes has now directed nine films, including Dark Waters in 2019 and Carol in 2015. Two of his previous works might have foreshadowed this one, as they also delved into musical themes. They are 1998’s Velvet Goldmine, about the life of a fictional glam-rocker based on David Bowie, and 2007’s I’m Not There, a musical drama inspired by the life and music of Bob Dylan.
Not without faults
Critics seem to agree The Velvet Underground is quite an accomplishment, though not without a few faults.
“Where perhaps it falls down is on the ordinary, gossipy sense of how exactly the band members could have fallen out so badly, and how painful that surely must have been,” wrote The Guardian‘s Bradshaw. The reviewer also questioned the film’s glossing over of sexual matters, including Reed’s sexuality.
The film’s triumph seems to be in capturing the spirt of the band, but not every minute of the film exhibits the same fire.
“At its best, Haynes’ film is neither a dry accounting of who the Velvets were nor a heady evocation of their work; it’s a movie about the fires these people set inside each other and how they spread to anyone else who was burning and gave them the same permission to push back against expectations,” wrote David Erhlich in IndieWire.
But, he added, “there are tired expository sketches toward the end” along the lines of “unhappy bands” all seeming to break up in the same way.