A metallic, kaleidoscopic immersion in early ‘60s New York, “The Velvet Underground” is a revelation in documentary. Following The Velvet Underground’s background, formation, and run—from Lou Reed’s Syracuse band to Andy Warhol’s Factory to tours on the West Coast—“The Velvet Underground” unravels the band’s discordant, momentous, and spiky history. Written and directed by Todd Haynes, the documentary was released by Apple TV on October 15, 2021. An honest glimpse into The Velvet Underground, the documentary is raw, inventive, and daring; but most of all, it burns with energy, striking just like the stages The Velvets played—de-tuned guitars, fizzly vocals, steely drones, and all.
Perhaps “The Velvet Underground”’s greatest achievement is its use of archival footage. Featuring extensive Andy Warhol-inspired split-screens, the 120 minute film contains 180 minutes of archival materials, with voiceovers interlacing over flickering celluloid, cut together as stinging percussions of Velvet Underground songs knock about in the background. (One particularly delightful instance of this—the film’s introduction features a three minute compilation of archival footage as the clamorous introduction to “Venus in Furs” rackets against the opening credits.) According to an interview with The Phillipian, executive producer John Sloss P’22 states that Haynes’ stylistic presentation of underground film and archival footage “expands the vernacular of musical documentaries,” experimental and edgy. Haynes’ subscription to an aesthetic that does not so much feel reminiscent as it does representative of Warhol-esque, avante-garde film, evokes a much more immersive and raw image of New York arts in the ‘60s than conventional documentary film.
Another one of “The Velvet Underground”’s triumphs is its simultaneous deconstruction of and immersion in The Velvets’ mythology. Throughout the film, Haynes weaves the intrinsic strangeness of The Velvets’ sound with the dreamy edge of ‘60s postmodern art movements, from LaMonte Young’s Dream Syndicate to Andy Warhol’s “Kiss.” Pressing each grizzly frame against one another under tinny drones, “The Velvet Underground” reveals not only the aesthetics of the culture that underscored The Velvets’ formation and run, but also evokes a more visceral sense of what brewed behind their music. The documentary details not only The Velvets’ golden era, but also their lives before and after The Velvet Underground. Refusing to buy into glamorous and cheap dramatics, the film elects instead to take a subtler but no less energetic angle. It features interviews with The Velvets’ family, friends, and fans in its gentler, closer moments, while still riding the high tides of its rolling archival montages. It is this combination, and Haynes’ directorial touch, that lends the film its vigorous yet nuanced core, working around flashing black-and-white film while maintaining a strong foundation.
Hooking its arms around the viewer and beckoning us into the crowd at a Velvets concert, “The Velvet Underground” is a grungy, steel-bare experiment in an avant-garde aesthetic. As beautifully disheveled as its music, “The Velvet Underground” is revelatory not only in its unravelling of the Velvet Underground’s knotty history, but also as a foray onto documentary’s stylistic edge. Dripping in rich archival footage, the film paints a stripped-back, gritty image of the vanguard of art in the ‘60s. “The Velvet Underground” is a cinematic marvel, culty and (if you’ll forgive my pun) underground in aesthetic, yet cohesive and cleanly masterful in its curation. As it sways in the crowd under the ringing steel strings of the Velvets’ guitars, “The Velvet Underground” reaches out a hand and beckons us into all tomorrow’s parties.
“The Velvet Underground” receives a 5/5 for its immersive aesthetic, as well as its complex portrayal of not only The Velvet Underground, but the avante-garde art movement in 1960s New York City.