When was the last time you watched a documentary on a band known for their exploitation of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, which didn’t exploit and over-emphasise the themes of sex, drugs, and rock and roll? It’s been done to death, and real fans of the music tend to want exactly that – the music. Well, don’t say we don’t treat you…our latest music documentary recommendation comes in the form of Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground, and there isn’t a needle in sight.
Discussing the Velvet Underground, revolutionary artist Andy Warhol prophesises that “we have the chance to combine music and art and film all together”. And fifty years later, Haynes does exactly this, retelling the revolutionary story of the band in a hypnotic film which collages archival footage (largely from the bountiful bank of Warhol) with modern interviews framed, in the words of The Guardian’s Simran Hans “like a downtown gallery installation”. In fairness, it would be sloppy for a film about the avant-garde not to be avant-garde in itself; this is the art world darling, edge is an entry requirement.
Haynes, known for making subversive and seminal work typically on the themes of art, music, and sexuality, is the perfect filmmaker for a project on a band as subversive and seminal as The Velvet Underground. A.O. Scott, in The New York Times describes him as “a protean filmmaker who never met a genre he couldn’t deconstruct” and with a brush stroke of genius, Haynes manages to visually and ideologically deconstruct his muses, mimicking the artistic movement that made them as much as they made it. Scott goes on to refer to the film as “a jagged and powerful work of art in its own right”, something which fans of the acclaimed Nirvana documentary Montage of Heck will be familiar with.
Ultimately, Peter Bradshaw, also in The Guardian hits the nail on the head, calling the film “a great documentary about people who are serious about music and serious also about art” which “gives a very good sense of…the transcendental quality of the Velvet Underground’s music”.
You’ve heard of art imitating life. This is art imitating art.
First shown October 2021.