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In stunning new documentary, Todd Haynes makes the Velvet Underground come impossibly alive

Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Though the most famous incarnation of the Velvet Underground was only around from 1965-1968, its influence on the direction of rock music is incalculable.

Founded in New York by Long Island-born Lou Reed and Welshman John Cale, and soon joined by Sterling Morrison and Maureen "Moe" Tucker, the quartet and its beguiling sometimes-singer, Nico, served as the house band at Andy Warhol's art space the Factory, where their glorious, drone-heavy din and wild Warhol-created light shows were a magnet for a cross-disciplinary posse of experimental filmmakers, painters, models, musicians and hangers-on.

On Friday, AppleTV+ will premiere "The Velvet Underground," director Todd Haynes' visually stunning, musically mind-blowing documentary on the band's origins, influences and work.

Starting in 1967 with "The Velvet Underground and Nico," which featured as its cover art Warhol's famous "peel slowly and see" banana sticker, the band released four studio albums. Though they were a commercial failure, their transgressive sound on songs such as "Heroin," "All Tomorrow's Parties" and "Venus in Furs," combined with their delicate ballads "Sunday Morning," "Pale Blue Eyes" and "Candy Says," helped crack open a thematic world where countless inheritors now reside. While West Coast hippies were celebrating peace, love and LSD, the Velvet Underground were writing and performing songs about shooting heroin and engaging in S&M, paving the way for future outsiders to establish the aesthetics of punk and new wave music.

As the years passed, those albums would ignite the muses of countless artists, including David Bowie, R.E.M., Nirvana, Joy Division and Big Star, all of whom covered Velvet Underground songs.

"The Velvet Underground" is the first feature-length documentary for the acclaimed Haynes ("Safe," "Carol"), whose prior music-focused projects revealed the creative depths of his fandom: "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story," a controversial short film that used Barbie and Ken dolls to represent the sibling soft-rock duo; "Velvet Goldmine," set in early '70s glam-rock London; and his kaleidoscopic Bob Dylan biopic, "I'm Not There," featuring six different actors playing Dylan.

 

The Velvets project sprung from a desire on behalf of Reed's widow, Laurie Anderson, and Universal Music Group, which owns the band's masters, to renew a conversation about the Velvet Underground's legacy while taking advantage of the footage and material housed in Reed's and the band's archives. (Reed died in 2013.) Anderson had identified Haynes as a potential director, and when the ask arrived, Haynes didn't hesitate.

"I said, 'Absolutely. Hands down.'"

Featuring new interviews with surviving band members Cale and Tucker, the late filmmaker Jonas Mekas, inhabitants of Warhol's art studio the Factory, musicians Jonathan Richman, La Monte Young and his artist-wife Marian Zazeela, Nico collaborator Jackson Browne and others, "The Velvet Underground" doesn't just document the complicated characters at the center. Through visually striking use of tiling and split screens, via Warhol's single-shot experimental films, including "Empire," "Sleep" and the many "Screen Test" shorts, the documentary augments the central story with layers of visual cues and accents.

Cale, 79, said via email that after seeing the completed film, he was struck by "Todd's ease and charm in navigating the channels of each member of the list of characters he encountered on the journey — many of whom have passed on. He set the table for the subject to fill the screen and take over all the senses without use of the standard documentary format."

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