In BFI London Film Festival’s ‘Special Presentation’ strand this year, Todd Haynes’ documentary expertly narrates the story of the pioneering avant-garde band, through stylistic nuance and intimacy.
Despite their brief five year tenure, The Velvet Underground undeniably set an extraordinary precedent for the rock genre. Led by rock legend Lou Reed, the band produced five studio albums. Four of which were indicted into Rolling Stone’s ‘The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time’ list. Through their management under Andy Warhol, the band experimented with a plethora of musical elements to invoke their distinctive sound. They eventually became the staple of Warhol’s Factory Studio in New York City during the 1960s.
Their huge influence on the genre is ripe for a documentary to explore in depth, and for commemorating crucial pioneers. Now decades later, film director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, I’m Not There, Carol) leads this documentary, which recounts the successes and tribulations throughout The Velvet Underground’s history. Containing interviews from surviving members of the band alongside Warhol’s collaborators, The Velvet Underground takes the audience on a hypnotic journey through a trailblazing moment in music history.
Todd Haynes is undoubtedly the ideal director for documenting this innovative band and their everlasting impact. His films often encompass a transgressive sensibility by either deconstructing conventions of societal roles or approaching a subject matter experimentally. This is notable in his earlier works, for example, I’m Not There (2007) that centred on Bob Dylan and Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) that portrayed the life of Karen Carpenter through Barbie dolls. Based on Haynes’ previous catalogue, this film has similar territory compared to his other efforts. However, what defines this documentary’s strengths is the terrific presentation demonstrated throughout.
The unique implementation of archival footage elevates the stories shared beyond a simple account from the interviewees. Archival black and white screen tests of the band members and Factory associates frequently accompany recounts of events. The band’s almost sullen and emotionless expressions add a sense of mystery and intrigue to their perspectives. The Velvet Underground members become more than simply band members, but rather elusive and complex figures that almost feel unreal. It enhances the film as an experience that places the viewer into a trance-like state.
With the alluring style, comes the passionate homage to not only The Velvet Underground, but further Andy Warhol’s artistry. As discussions are revealed, the documentary acknowledges the trends and inspirations that cemented their sound. Through a combination of screen tests and accounts, the film transforms into an authentic emulation of Andy Warhol’s artistic style. It honours the themes commonly situated in his most famous works and communicates these in a present-day medium. On a nostalgic basis, this tribute showcases a timeless quality in their music and Warhol’s art by demonstrating how their impact can echo past the 1960s, to the contemporary era.
Notwithstanding the documentary’s strong points, the pacing unfortunately, begins to slightly lose track during the last third. The latter years of The Velvet Underground’s history are portrayed sufficiently, but a more polished ending would have solidified the film’s strengths. If the film maintained its tight pacing throughout, the impact of the themes would have resonated more powerfully as an unforgettable experience long after the initial viewing.
Todd Haynes’ first documentary is a deeply captivating watch. Exploring the many highs and lows endured by one of Rock’s most influential bands, The Velvet Underground will satisfy fans whilst also introducing a new generation to a revolutionary music scene.
Words by Ethan Soffe
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