"The Velvet Underground" review: And me, I'm in a rock'n'roll band

To hear more audio stories from publications like the New York Times, download Audm for iPhone or Android . Somewhere in the 1960s, Joh...


To hear more audio stories from publications like the New York Times, download Audm for iPhone or Android.

Somewhere in the 1960s, John Cale, a classically trained Welsh violist with avant-garde trends, met Lou reed, a middle-class Jewish graduate from Long Island who dreamed of being a rock star. Their creative partnership, encouraged by Andy warhol and reinforced by the mercurial presence of the German model, actress and singer Nico, was the volatile foundation of the Velvet Underground, a commercially marginal group that changed the course of popular music.

The story of Velvet Underground is hardly obscure, and in general terms it could fit fairly well into the standard model of a musical documentary. Early struggle gives way to (relative) triumph, and then it all explodes in a flurry of struggling ego, drug addiction, and self-defeating behavior. In the process, life goes on, solo careers are pursued and the survivors – fans as well as artists – recall with sweet affection the wild and exhilarating past, brought to life by unearthed television images.

“The Velvet Underground” has some of those elements, but it’s directed by Todd Haynes, a protean filmmaker who’s never encountered a genre he couldn’t deconstruct. Although it is not as radical as “I am not here,” his 2007 Bob Dylan anti-biopic, this film is also engaged in a skeptical and inventive reading of recent cultural history. He doesn’t just tell the story in the usual way, and he finds revelation in what might have seemed familiar.

Haynes doesn’t just want you to listen to reminiscences of band members and their friends, lovers, and collaborators, or jump into a vintage video of the band in action. He wants you to hear how weird and new the Velvets sounded, to grasp, intuitively and analytically, where that sound was coming from. And also to see – to feel, to experience – the aesthetic ferment and the sensory overload of mid-1960s Manhattan.

A lot of eloquent people are there to talk about what it was. Cale and Drummer Maureen Tucker, the two original members of the Velvet Underground who are still alive, share their memories, as do some of Reed’s old friends and surviving members of the Warhol Circle.

Their faces, shot in a soft, nostalgic and indirect light, share the screen with a rapid flow – a kinetic collage – of images. While these images sometimes document places, events, and personalities – featuring Allen Ginsberg, Max’s Kansas City, and a topical clip on the downtown scene narrated by Barbara Walters – more importantly they serve to tie the music of the Velvets at the experimental cinema of the time.

Warhol was, along with everything else, a filmmaker, as was his partner Paul Morrissey. Haynes dedicates “The Velvet Underground” to the memory of Jonas Mekas, the great champion and gadfly of New York’s cinematic avant-garde who died in 2019. In the film, Mekas marvels at the abundance of artistic activity in the city in the early 1960s, and the constant mix and the cross-pollination that took place there. . The traditional boundaries – between poetry and painting, high art and low, film and music, irony and seriousness – have not been so transgressed as they have turned out to be irrelevant.

It was a remarkable time, but not exactly a golden age. Haynes respects art too much to idealize artists, or to impose a retrospective harmony on their dissonances. The overt cruelty and threat of music – the buzz and distortion behind the lyrics about drug addiction, sadism, and sexual exploitation – did not come out of nowhere.

Film critic Amy Taubin, who starred in a Warhol film about “the most beautiful women in the world,” bluntly recalls that the Factory, Warhol’s headquarters, was a bad place for women, who were valued for their appearance rather than for their talents. One aspect of Warhol’s genius was a knack for using people, and often using them. Reed, who died in 2013, is a beloved posthumously figure, but few of his contemporaries would describe him as a pleasant person.

And kindness was, anyway, antithetical to what the Velvet Underground was trying to do. “We hated that shit of peace and love,” Tucker says. Artist Mary Woronov, who has toured with the Velvets on the West Coast, explains their hostility to the Californian counterculture: “We hate hippies. Never a political group, it nonetheless articulated a powerful protest – against sentimentality, stupidity, false consciousness and positive thinking – that would sow the seeds of punk rock and later rebellions. Evidence of their influence is provided by singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman, who estimates that he saw them live 60 or 70 times as a teenager in Boston, and whose enthusiasm is not tarnished more than a half a century later.

Drop a needle on any Velvet Underground record – or put on a playlist, if that’s how you ride – and what you’ll hear will sound new, scary and full of possibilities, even in the thousandth listen. “The Velvet Underground” will show you where this perpetual novelty comes from and connect the sound points to other contemporary artistic eruptions. As a documentary, it’s wonderfully informative. It is also a jagged and powerful work of art in its own right, which turns archeology into prophecy.

The velvet metro
Ranked R. “Heroine”, “Furry Venus”, “Sister Ray” – you do the math. Duration: 1 hour 50 minutes. In theaters and on Apple TV +.

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Newsrust - US Top News: "The Velvet Underground" review: And me, I'm in a rock'n'roll band
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