The art-rock-noise band “The Velvet Underground” destroyed and remade listeners’ obtained knowledge about what rock-‘n’-roll may very well be. It’s elating and proper that Todd Haynes’ new movie about them would do the identical for music documentaries.
Remember, although, that viewers who come into Hayne’s two-hour film “The Velvet Underground” trying for a primer on the band, Lou Reed, John Cale, Nico, Andy Warhol, Mary Woronov, The Manufacturing unit, and different well-known names and places could discover themselves disoriented. Regardless of the presence of numerous conventional documentary components, and a largely linear story that pulls you thru roughly twenty years of cultural historical past, Haynes and his collaborators make the expertise really feel new and shocking, assembling the element elements with an eye fixed in the direction of making not only a film, however expertise, one thing that you just really feel as you may really feel the drums throughout a reside music efficiency: in your intestine.
Interview topics who had been current on the time—together with Velvet co-founder Cale, a Welsh classical musician; actress and painter Woronov; my colleague Amy Taubin, a veteran movie critic; and the late Anthology Movie Archives founder Jonas Mekas, who died not long after his interviews—provide commentary and perception, alternating between taking an indifferent “lengthy view” of issues and plunging us properly into the center of all of it. (Taubin is especially sharp when critiquing the sexism of the Manufacturing unit, the place girls, together with lead singer Nico, had been prized for his or her placing attractiveness over all else.)
Like one other nice 2021 music documentary, Questlove’s “Summertime of Soul,” this film seems to intentionally undertake the construction of a mid-twentieth century vinyl album—the sort with songs organized in tracks which are supposed to be skilled in a linear method, first Facet A after which Facet B, straight by means of, without stopping. Each couple of minutes, the enhancing shifts emphasis so that you just simply switching musical tracks however mental tracks: as in railroads, as in “one-track thoughts,” or “practice of thought.”
Underneath Haynes’ supervision, cutters Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz let the fabric move and alter the route and twist recursively again on itself, digress a bit, then return to the primary level. The impact is much less like sitting in a classroom and having details laid out for you than listening to a semi-improvised Velvet Underground jam whereas perusing espresso desk books or pictorial websites concerning the band and pondering connections between the music that the band was making and the occasions that had been unfolding on the planet round them. It is a suggestions loop of data that creates a cinematic equal of that hypnotic drone that flows beneath so lots of the Velvet Underground’s songs, and that Cale insightfully tells us was modeled on the “60-cycle hum” of home equipment and machines from that interval in historical past, the understructure of recent life.
There’s one other factor taking place right here, involving overlapping dialogue and music cues and split-screen pictures, and it is simply as fascinating: Haynes appears to be looking for a streaming-era equal to the multimedia sound-and-light exhibits that Warhol and his mates and “discoveries” used to stage round New York within the ’60s—the musical/dance/poetry/experimental cinema “happenings” that will comprise the Velvets performing a track, alternate reels of movies being projected on partitions, chosen viewers members working spotlights, and so forth, all on the identical time. Haynes and cinematographer Ed Lachman mild the present-day interviews within the method of Warhol’s “close-up” movies, with even-toned lighting and a solid-colored background, in an old-style “academy ratio” picture that is nearer to an sq. than a rectangle. The impact evokes precise footage taken by Warhol and different Manufacturing unit-adjacent filmmakers on the time, materials that are included right here as effectively.
All the supplies are handled as components to be organized in split-screen compositions that evoke Warhol’s “Chelsea Girls,” a quasi-documentary “expertise” that’s ideally introduced in a movie show the place two 16mm movie projectors can run concurrently, casting two unrelated pictures side-by-side and letting the soundtracks overlap and change into dissonant, a soup of dialogue and sound. (“I haven’t got to hearken to this shit,” a Los Angeles studio engineer informed the band once they had been recording 1968’s White Mild/White Warmth. “I will put it on the document, and I am leaving. Whenever you’re finished, come and get me.”) Throughout the opening part of the movie, half of the split-screen picture is an unnerving Warhol closeup of the younger Lou Reed staring proper at you for minutes on the finish. Generally, the opposite split-screen picture might be crammed up with pictures of no matter a skilled witness is telling you about in voice-over. On different occasions, you are likely to be seeing out-of-focus pictures of Manhattan taken from a transferring car, or the psychedelic sunbursts of color that happen when a reel of the movie runs out whereas passing by means of a digital camera’s gate. It is Godardian, as in Jean-Luc, nevertheless, it’s additionally Warholian, and Haynesian, and if you happen to’re in the best way of thinking, it is hypnotizing, brain-expanding, and simply plain enjoyable.
Along with new and outdated materials that is instantly related to the band (together with early “music video” footage, and pictures of them gallivanting in New York, Los Angeles, and different locales), you additionally see pictures from filmmakers who both operated contemporaneously with the Manufacturing unit or impressed them, from Warhol’s infamous static-shot “Empire” to fragments of (if my eye would not deceive me!) Kenneth Anger’s “Scorpio Rising” and Maya Deren’s “Meshes of the Afternoon.” Sound and pictures do not merely work collectively however at cross-purposes, making a vibe extra so than an easy narrative. Even when Haynes (who handled a few of the identical themes fictionally in his music drama “Velvet Goldmine”) is being sneakily typical, verging on a public television-style, “let’s all admire this unbelievable factor that occurred” mode, you at all times really feel as if you happen to be immersed in a kaleidoscope of impressions, associations, and anecdotes. They swirl throughout the display screen just like the multicolored lights that used to scrub over the band throughout reside performances on the Manufacturing unit, usually to the annoyance of Reed and Cale, who wished their music to be central to the expertise, although they knew intellectually that it was, however, one half of a bigger image.
It is a dazzling movie—not simply one in every of Haynes’ greatest, however presumably the one which his complete profession, with all of its self-aware formal and historic experiments, has been constructing towards. I am deeply jealous of anybody who received to see it projected on a giant display screen, with a booming sound, as a result of that is the way it ought to be seen. It is a spectacle in addition to an account of a time and place. It makes you concentrate on what a documentary is, and what a movie can do, even because it does the entire issues that you really want and wish.