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Todd Haynes’ Velvet Underground Documentary Will Change the Way You Think About the Band

The new movie, streaming on Apple TV+, rescues the group from being just a band that inspired other bands.

10/17/2021 5:05:00 AM

The filmmaker’s new movie reinvents the rock documentary the same way he reinvented the biopic with I’m Not There.

The new movie, streaming on Apple TV+, rescues the group from being just a band that inspired other bands.

.Partly he does so by not asking the past to answer to the future. He respects viewers’ intelligence enough to assume we probably know what happened next, or can draw the connections for ourselves—in part, if we wish, by watching his 1998 glam-rock era tribute feature,

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Velvet Goldmine, which this film retrofits as a sequel. The fact that the VU’s sound was partly derived from experimental cinema, and from the year-and-a-half that Cale spent playing sustained drone tones for an hour-and-a-half a day with Conrad, the composer La Monte Young, and others in a project called the Dream Syndicate, on the other hand, isn’t something a smart but uninitiated contemporary viewer could just piece together for themselves. It’s perhaps a third of the way into the documentary that we even get to the founding of the band, but by that point we’re fully briefed to understand how the group came, as Cale puts it, to “combine R&B and Wagner.” As the surviving one of the VU’s two principles

after Reed’s death in 2013, Cale’s perspective tends to have the most weight here, although Haynes uses excerpts from recorded interviews and other sources for balance. But Cale’s prominence in itself is a corrective to a history in which Reed’s beguiling and tormenting presence usually has been put at the center. headtopics.com

AdvertisementAdvertisementAdvertisementOf course Haynes does touch on all of the subjects that have been buzzed about for half a century, such as whether Reed’s parents subjected him to shock treatment totry to stop him from being gay, and all the drug use, and the cruelty that could circulate in Warhol’s milieus, and the sadomasochistic and street-junkie poetry in the VU’s lyrics. But he also recognizes how tedious all these subjects can become through fan fetishization. For much of the movie, instead, he keeps thinking about those Dream Syndicate drones, which carry on through the VU’s music in Cale’s sawing viola and in the spirals of guitar feedback and in Reed’s at once grimy and abstract words and in the rumbling trance of Moe Tucker’s drums. The power of the drone is not so much in its grinding monotony, although that’s part of how it draws a foreboding circle around this music daring listeners to enter, but in the harmonic overtones it produces, which eerily generate another level to the music that doesn’t seem to have a locatable human source. The singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman, who says in the documentary that he likely saw the VU play 60 to 70 times in his Boston hometown as a teenager (and was given guitar lessons by Morrison), talks about this mysterious “group sound” and how it would hypnotize crowds when the band played a song like “

,” such that when they finished, there would be a full five seconds of silence before anyone recovered enough self-possession to start clapping.AdvertisementAdvertisementAdvertisementThose harmonic overtones serve as a metaphor that drones in the background throughout the film. They stand for the ineffable alchemy of collaboration, in which, as Cale says, two plus two ends up making seven. And that’s not just the alchemy between Cale and Reed and the other band members. It’s between them and Warhol. It’s between them and

the Teutonic chanteuse Nico—whom Warhol imposed on the group likely for all of the wrong reasons, a “blond iceberg” model amid all of these black-clad outcasts. It’s between them and the denizens of Warhol’s Factory, like Gerard Malanga and Mary Woronov, who would join them onstage to dance in leather harnesses with whips. It’s between them and all the filmmakers who projected “fucking polka dots” on them onstage, not to mention the audience members who were allowed to control the lighting and, usually, break the bulbs. And by extension the pulsing synapses of the postwar city itself.

Read more: Slate »

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It really didn’t change anything I think about the band. But I enjoyed it.

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