Release Date(s)2021 (December 13, 2022)
Studio(s)Apple TV+ (The Criterion Collection – Spine #1164)
- Film/Program Grade: C
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B+
The Velvet Underground is a fascinating if somewhat frustrating documentary about the short-lived but profoundly influential New York avant-garde rock group, directed by eclectic filmmaker Todd Haynes. At least, that’s the title and the ostensible subject matter, but it ultimately reveals more about the obsessions of Haynes than it does about the band itself. Haynes is clearly a fan of the Velvet Underground, but he’s even more fascinated by the entire underground scene in New York—music, poetry, filmmaking, and the whole artistic milieu from that period. All of that finds its way into the final documentary, both in terms of form and of content. As a result, the film is too diffuse to provide any real insights into the band, its members, or why they’ve been so influential.
One difficulty in telling the story of the Velvet Underground is that there’s little sound footage available of them actually performing. There’s quite a bit of material that was shot during their time with Andy Warhol at the Factory, but much of that is of an experimental nature, like Warhol’s silent “screen tests” of the band members, or performance material that was heavily stylized. The solution that Haynes employed was to intermingle new interviews with clips from the expanded cinema filmmakers who worked during the period, treating the entire frame as a multi-image canvas like the split-screen experimentation by Warhol and Paul Morrisey in Chelsea Girls. It’s an impressive collection of footage from seminal works by the likes of Jonas Mekas, Maya Deren, Stan VanDerBeek, Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, John Whitney, Stan Brakhage, Shirley Clarke, and many, many more. Of course, it’s all treated in fragmentary fashion, but in way, that’s exactly how Haynes approached telling the entire story. It’s more about mood and tone than it is about coherency.
The Velvet Underground does cover the broad contours of the history of the band and its members: biographical information about Lou Reed and John Cale; the influence of Andy Warhol and the Factory; the presence of Nico; the four studio albums; and the interpersonal struggles that repeatedly tore the band apart. Yet both Mo Tucker and Sterling Morrison are given short shrift compared to Reed and Cale, with even replacement member Doug Yule receiving more attention than the two of them (and not positively so, as Haynes is clear about his biases toward the first two studio albums). All of that is fairly cursory, with Haynes spending so much time setting up the early Factory scene with Warhol that the full band doesn’t really emerge until fifty minutes into the film, and their first album The Velvet Underground & Nico isn’t covered until after an hour. There’s plenty of Velvet Underground music in The Velvet Underground, but not enough solid content that’s actually about the music.
Where The Velvet Underground does spring to life is during the new interviews, especially whenever fellow musician and uber fan Jonathan Richman is on screen. He provides the passion that’s otherwise missing from the rest of the film. When he explains how his life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll, it’s with such sincerity that you can’t help but believe in him, and by extension, in the power of the Velvet Underground. The abstract, theoretical approach that Haynes took to the material acts as a distancing device, but Richman erases any such barriers with his boundless enthusiasm. There’s a famous quote from Reed, usually attributed to Brian Eno, where he said that their first album only sold 30,000 copies, but everyone who bought it started their own band. While the actual sales figure isn’t quite accurate, Richman is living proof of the concept behind that statement.
In the end, The Velvet Underground isn’t a definitive documentary about the legendary band. It is, however, a definitive statement about the obsessions of Todd Haynes. It’s a summation of his enchantment with the entire underground scene in New York, from music, to poetry, to film, and all points in between. Considered from that perspective, it’s wholly successful as a personal statement. Whether or not it’s equally rewarding as a record of what the Velvet Underground represented will be a matter of personal taste. It does give an impression of the band, but one that’s lacking in real depth. That may be enough for some viewers, but it won’t satisfy everyone, especially hardcore Velvet Underground fans. Your own mileage may vary.
As a mixed-media presentation that includes a variety of different types of archival film footage, the process of shooting and editing The Velvet Underground is a complicated one. Since the bulk of the archival footage is full frame 1.33:1, cinematographer Ed Lachman framed most of the new interview footage at the same aspect ratio, so that Haynes could play around with the split-screen imagery. Lachman primarily captured the interviews digitally at 2.8K resolution using a ARRI ALEXA Mini cameras with vintage Angénieux 25-250mm HR zoom lenses. LiveGrain textures were applied to the digital material in order to help it blend with the archival footage. (A few shots were also created on Super 8 mm film using a Beaulieu 4008 with the Angénieux zoom.) Everything was finished as a 4K Digital Intermediate, framed at 1.77:1. Needless to say, all of that means that the final results as presented on this disc need to be considered in light of how the film was produced. The archival footage is of varying quality, and it’s important to note that many of the underground filmmakers who shot it deliberately scratched the emulsion, or added other distorting effects. The new digital footage is obviously much clearer, even with the fake grain. It still cuts together reasonably well. Fortunately, the bit rate runs consistently high enough to manage even the most challenging material. It’s not exactly a reference-quality master, but it all looks exactly like it should.
(As an aside, Lachman was the person who photographed and directed the “live” performance video of Reed and Cale’s Songs for Drella that was released on VHS and LaserDisc in 1990. The negatives for that were thought lost, but he located them recently and restored them on his own time and money. That restoration is currently available streaming on The Criterion Channel, but if anyone from Warner Bros is listening, please, please find a way to release it on Blu-ray. Then, please make Live MCMXCIII and Lou’s Magic and Loss videos happen as well. The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed fans of the world thank you in advance.)
Audio for The Velvet Underground is offered in English Dolby Atmos and 2.0 Dolby Digital, with optional English subtitles, plus annotations (more on that later). While the Atmos mix does take advantage of the extra channels by spreading some of the sound effects around the viewer, the music is largely left unadorned. That’s doubtless for the best, since most of the Velvet Underground’s albums were recorded on fairly primitive equipment by today’s standards, and there’s already enough controversy over the mixes on their third and fourth albums as it is. The biggest advantage to the Atmos version is that it offers all of the music in lossless format, while the 2.0 is lossy Dolby Digital. Yet when comparing the two tracks to each other, things aren’t quite that simple. The music is much more recessed in the Atmos mix than it is in stereo, where it’s more appropriately in-your-face. However delicate that some VU tracks like Sunday Morning or Pale Blue Eyes may be, there’s no such subtlety to songs like Sister Ray or I Can’t Stand It. They don’t have any natural dynamics other than being as loud as possible from beginning to end. It doesn’t help that the two mixes are mastered at different levels, but even after raising the volume on the Atmos version to match that of the Dolby Digital, the music still doesn’t have quite the same impact. If Criterion had elected to encode the stereo track in lossless quality, it might actually have been preferable to Atmos. As it is, the Atmos track does have a slight edge over lossy Dolby Digital, but only if you raise the volume level significantly. In other words, play it loud, as loud as you can stand it (any more more).
Note that Criterion’s Blu-ray release of The Velvet Underground is Blu-ray only, not a combo pack—they’re only offering it on DVD as a separate release. Either way, the set includes a 26-page booklet featuring an essay by Greil Marcus, as well as cast, crew, and technical information. The following extras are included, all of them in HD:
- Audio Commentary with Todd Haynes, Affonso Goncalves, and Adam Kurnitz
- Interview with Jonas Mekas (20:12)
- Interview with Mary Woronov (13:35)
- Interview with Jonathan Richman (15:51)
- Interview with Todd Haynes, John Cale, and Maureen Tucker with Jenn Pelly (48:36)
- Avant-Garde Films: Award Presentation to Andy Warhol (12:21)
- Avant-Garde Films: Venus in Furs (21:20)
- Avant-Garde Films: Walden: Diaries, Notes, and Sketches (excerpt) (7:46)
- Teaser (:32)
- Annotation Track
The commentary features Haynes along with editors Affonso Goncalves and Adam Kurnitz. They immediately joke about rolling a joint to watch the film, which definitely gives an insight into the mindset that guided the production—it’s supposed to be a trip, not necessarily a true documentary. They provide the backstory of how the project came about, explore the nature of the period being represented, and explain the logic behind the split-screen methodology. They also spend some time discussing the centrality of the song Heroin to both The Velvet Underground and the band itself. Regardless of whether or not their passion for the music comes through during the film, it definitely comes through on this commentary track.
The first three interviews all come from the same sessions that Haynes shot for The Velvet Underground. They’re essentially outtakes, but they function as extended unbroken dialogues with each of the participants, ones that aren’t broken up by the stylistic impositions that Haynes used in the film. The late Jonas Mekas talks about his move to New York and his own experiences in the underground film scene, including the obscenity case that he took to the Supreme Court (and lost) over showing Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures. He also gives his own idiosyncratic views of Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground. The equally one-of-a-kind Mary Woronov discusses her experiences both with drugs and with Andy Warhol, before providing her own opinions about the Velvet Underground and the different members of the group. As for Jonathan Richman, well, he’s the same as he ever was. Guitar in hand, he goes on a wildly freeform exploration of how the Velvet Underground influenced his own life and music. His wide-eyed fanboy’s perspective is every bit as insightful as anything that Haynes presents in the film.
The interview with Haynes, John Cale, and Maureen Tucker was conducted via Zoom in 2021 by Pitchfork’s Jenn Pelly. They openly discuss the challenges of putting together a documentary about the Velvet Underground despite the dearth of original concert footage that’s available, which leads to an exploration of the history of the band and, by extension, the entire period that they were active. There’s actually quite a bit more detail here than there is in the documentary, so it’s a worthwhile addendum to the main feature.
In theory, the inclusion of a few examples of the expanded cinema that Haynes compiled for the film is a nice touch, but like the documentary itself, the selection is a little frustrating. Despite the presence of classics by the likes of underground filmmakers like Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, and more, none of their work is included here. Jonas Mekas is represented, deservedly so, but neither of his two films are complete. Award Presentation to Andy Warhol is a stylized document of Andy Warhol receiving the Independent Film Award from Film Culture in 1964. It runs full length, but since the music that Mekas originally used to accompany the silent images would have caused clearance issues, it’s presented here without sound. Mekas did provide a text card with his song suggestions from the Supremes’ 1964 album Where Did Our Love Go. Walden: Diaries, Notes, and Sketches is an excerpt from the three-hour magnum opus that Mekas completed in 1969. It does manage to give a taste of what he accomplished with the film, but needless to say, it’s a cursory one. Venus in Furs is Piero Heliczer’s 1965 short that includes distorted footage of the Velvet Underground performing (with their original drummer, Angus McLise), as well as clips from other sources like The Bride of Frankenstein. It was shot silent on 8 mm equipment, so it’s also presented without sound here.
These three shorts are interesting enough on their own, but they’re still only a small sample of some of the remarkable works that Haynes used throughout the documentary. It’s nothing like the splendid Yellow Veil Pictures Blu-ray for Gaspar Noé’s Lux Aeterna, which included a second disc featuring four full examples of the expanded cinema that had influenced Noé, complete and uncut. For a film that was inspired as much by the New York underground film scene as it was by the Velvet Underground, a broader selection of ancillary material would have been nice.
Speaking of all of those works, the final extra is an annotation track that identifies each of the films that Haynes used with on-screen text. There’s also a separate excerpt of one sequence where thirty-three different films were presented simultaneously onscreen. (It would have been too distracting to cover the entire frame this way while watching the main feature.) This is a genuinely useful tool that’s worth having active even while watching the film for the first time.
Taken as a whole, it’s a decent package, if a somewhat mixed one. Yet however questionable that the expanded cinema selections may have been, the extended interviews and the commentary do provide some of the depth that The Velvet Underground may have otherwise lacked on its own. So in that sense, it’s a good support for a flawed but fascinating film. Regardless of whether or not Velvet Underground fans learn anything new from the film, they’ll still definitely want to pick up this set, and it’s probably a good introduction for those who are unfamiliar with the group—a slightly confusing introduction, perhaps, but a good one nonetheless.
- Stephen Bjork