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The Velvet Underground Review – IGN

The Velvet Underground will debut in theaters and on Apple TV Plus on Oct. 15.

A documentary that’s as off-beat and avant-garde as its subjects, The Velvet Underground is rife with jagged, experimental sounds, archival footage, and dreamlike imagery. While it strings together a narrative about the band’s history, its story is largely impenetrable to anyone not already familiar with the group. However, this is less a matter of intentional exclusion, and more because of its stylistic approach; it isn’t as concerned with illuminating facts as it is with orienting you within a specific time and place, even though it sometimes struggles to follow through on this idea.

Directed by Todd Haynes (Carol and I’m Not There), the film is functionally a retrospective featuring the band’s surviving members, but its interview segments are often treated as window dressing to help set the mood ­— at least at first. Much of the story is told through old film reels shot contemporaneously, which provide an intimate first-hand look at where the band came to be (fittingly, New York’s underground music scene, which was then in its infancy), along with occasional context for how it came to be as well.

While there may not be enough of this footage to cut together an entire movie, Haynes and his editors, Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz, make ingenious use of what they have at their disposal. Black-and-white close ups of band members, both living and dead, play on loop in slow motion on one unevenly divided side of the screen, while photographs, concert footage, and other relevant images appear alongside each face in impressionistic patterns. A high-contrast close up of a young John Cale ends up being put to particularly good use; the shadow enveloping half his face feels like it extends to other parts of the screen once the accompanying images fade to black, as if the darker elements of his past were consuming his entire story.

While the film eventually goes on to chronicle the group’s involvement with various artistic innovators (chief among them, Andy Warhol), the first artist it evokes isn’t generally considered one of their contemporaries: Latvian abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko. His work was a vital part of the New York arts scene that would eventually pave the way for The Velvet Underground, but it also forms the visual inspiration for the documentary itself. Rothko’s work — instantly recognizable for its warm, segmented rectangles — makes an appearance early on, while various talking heads are setting the stage. However, one of his sunset-tinted canvases lingers on screen, as if to invite deeper and more complex readings of the film’s own segmented appearance. The screen always features two (or more) pictures or bits of footage at once, each divided into uneven rectangles, with one usually overpowering the others and anchoring the visual narrative (for instance, the aforementioned close up of Cale). Once Rothko’s paintings are planted firmly in our minds, the little gaps and black bars separating each archival image become just as inviting as the pictures themselves. It’s as if they ask not only what binds each image to the other, but what drove the band’s key elements apart.

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It’s a story told in fragments, and through aesthetic fragmentation. When its subjects begin to wax poetic about the band’s experiments with acoustic hums, these enveloping sounds are complemented by magnified flaws in the film grain, which consume the entire screen. It like Haynes and cinematographer Ed Lachman were searching — much as The Velvet Underground and their collaborators once did — for hidden meaning within the fabric of their chosen medium. The film is front-loaded with these experimental flourishes, which make for a fascinating and inviting introduction before things finally slow down and take a slightly more conventional form.

Interviews with surviving band members help set the scene for the various 1960s cultures, subcultures, and countercultures that would eventually give rise to The Velvet Underground, Nico, and the Factory collective. The narrative includes the larger social forces at play, as well as the individual lives of various group members, and the ways they clashed with families and societies still stuck in a distinctly 1950s mindset, of white-picket-fence American “normalcy” at any cost.

The Velvet Underground is an intentionally fragmented documentary.


The flashy images certainly continue beyond this point — things would only get more experimental when the likes of Warhol entered the fray. However, for those viewers not already intimately familiar with the lives of each rotating band member, keeping up with the many individual stories demands the kind of active attention and mental list-making that clashes with the film’s otherwise hypnotic fabric.

Aesthetically, it ends up split somewhere down the middle, between a piece where the emotional impact is born of traditional “character” arcs and trajectories which move logically from point A to B, and a piece you simply submit to, as it yanks you along a path paved with haunting sonic vibrations, and sends you spinning through time via snippets of a long-lost New York City. Then again, the fact that a documentary almost succeeds at this is invigorating all on its own, even if it can’t quite keep up with its own momentum.

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