One of the most anticipated documentaries of the 74th Festival de Cannes, The Velvet Underground celebrated its premiere at the Grand Lumiére theater this Wednesday evening.
The film narrates the story of The Velvet Underground, one of the most influential yet less mainstream bands of the 1960s. It follows the origins of its iconic founder Lou Reed and John Cale. Director Todd Haynes manages to tell the band’s story even without the majority of the band’s members. Cale dominates his interviews as one of the last living founders, describing his artistic connection with Reed.
Haynes immediately immerses the audience with an unconventionally dreamlike sequence that reflects the experimental nature of the band’s musical style. The film is also a celebration of art culture in the late 1950s and 1960s. Specifically, it highlights the intersection of music, cinema, and art with Andy Warhol’s New York City studio “The Factory”. The relationship between Warhol and The Velvet Underground was relatively brief. However, the focus is effective at maintaining the audience’s engagement with more familiar names and their cultural impact.
The Velvet Underground is a documentary about more than just a rock and roll band, but rather a rock and roll culture. It celebrates the New York City melting pot of artists trying to escape from the grimness of war and create something worth living for. It briefly mentions Reed’s experience as a gay man in a time where mental health services were dismal. In particular, it highlights the trauma of conversion therapy in his youth.
What follows is a dive into Reed’s approach to writing lyrics. Specifically, he believed that writing great pieces of literature was the same as writing songs. Those who interacted with him told their experiences on the receiving end of his perfectionism and aggressive drive to create music that has never been done before. Building the band he needed to get the sound he needed was not an easy feat. Thankfully, the struggle paid off as the band found its peak in the mid to late 60s. They reveled in the so-called subculture of art, though they knew there was nothing sub about them. They were the culture. And became the blueprint for the culture for years to come.
Unfortunately, such an experimental career and peak came crashing to an end. As it turns out, the band broke away slowly until it was no more. Haynes captures this entropic journey to the very end with grace and respect, never once exploiting drama or mal intent between members and friends of the band. Though boasting a 110-minute runtime, the doc accomplishes its homage to the drone tone in their music that was similar to the “alpha channel of the brain when it is asleep”. Soothingly rhythmic, The Velvet Underground is the perfect film for the deeply cultured music lover. – Ileana Meléndez
The Velvet Underground will release on Apple TV+ on October 15, 2021.