The Velvet Underground
By Madeine Bocaro
© Madeline Bocaro, 2021. No part of this site may be reproduced or re-blogged in whole or in part in any manner without permission of the copyright owner.
First, we see an on-screen warning that the flickering lights in this film might be a concern for photosensitive epileptics. However, there is no warning concerning the well-being of our ears. A quote from Baudelaire is the preface. We hear Lou Reed reading the words of Delmore Schwartz, speaking poetically about the escapist essence of film itself.
The pure essence of Todd Haynes’ wonderful film is conveyed in the very first musical sound that we hear – the glorious, dissonant droning beginning of ‘Heroin’ bouncing around the speakers. What sounds like nails on a blackboard to some, is music to the ears of those who have embraced The Velvet Underground in all their magnificence – from darkness to white light, from depravity to joy, and from brutality to beauty.
Unlike Haynes’ far-flung fantasy glam film Velvet Goldmine (which I cannot forgive for the fictionalizing of Iggy Pop and David Bowie being lovers), his 2 ½ -hour Velvet Underground documentary is THE REAL DEAL! It is the true definition of being immersed in the culture…
Haynes envelops us in the dream-like trance of the band’s sound and visuals, with masterful use of grainy 1960s film footage, illustrating the true story about the creators of a transcendent enthralling noise that we have come to love and/or hate.
The grittiness of 1960s New York City and the merging of art forms are evoked by the inclusion of mostly monochromatic film footage, shot by filmmakers “of-the-time,” including Andy Warhol’s screen tests (in the double-screen style of his film Chelsea Girls). None of these films are at normal speed – they are either sped up or slowed down – warping our sense of time and place.
The films of Jonas Mekas (founder of Film-Makers Cinemateque in NYC, frequented by Warhol – who met many of his acolytes there) are heavily featured, as is his invaluable commentary. The documentary is lovingly dedicated to Mekas, whose manic cinematography, along with that of Warhol’s (Kiss, Empire, Sleep, screen tests), Barbara Rubin (who brought Warhol to see the VU at Café Bizarre), Jack Smith and many others, captures the spirit of The Velvet Underground, and of the city.
There are voices of band and family members, college acquaintances and Warholites. Drummer Moe Tucker shares some great insights in her own sensible and humorous way. Danny Fields shares his memories. It’s also cool to see filmmaker John Waters speak a bit. Jonathan Richman is the only superfan worthy of screen time. (One reviewer said it best, pointing out that Hanes “made a rule that he would only interview people who’d actually been on the ground at the time, sparing viewers the obligatory roc-doc cameos from Bono or Dave Grohl bloviating about the vast significance of…”)
First in focus is John Cale (who speaks at length throughout the film) and his respect for avant-garde artists John Cage and La Monte Young. Cale’s performance of an 18-hour long work by Eric Satie (whose name ironically seems to be missing an “R”) is featured on the vintage television show “I’ve Got a Secret.” We hear Lou Reed speaking of his first loves – doo wop and rockabilly.
Next, we visit the parallel disturbed, isolated childhoods of Reed (in suburban Long Island, NY) and Cale (in gothic Wales). Both young men were broken and volatile. Both were drawn to music on the radio, in contrasting forms.
Reed is described as, “sullen, antagonistic, rebellious.” For solace, Lou turns to literature, poetry and rock n’ roll, and Cale to classical music. We hear from Lou’s sister about their dismal, dysfunctional family. She dances around (literally doing “The Ostrich”) Lou’s homosexuality, his extreme intake of drugs, and the alleged consent to shock treatment by his parents. We surprisingly see the girl with ‘Pale Blue Eyes,’ Lou’s college girlfriend Shelly Corwin, who says that he was very insecure. Shelly recalls Lou taking her to dangerous places, to NYC gay bars, to Harlem to cop heroin – most likely for lyric material.
Cale, an only child, tells the chilling story (with haunting visuals) of how his passionately devoted mother “vanished” after treatments for breast cancer, and his subsequent loneliness and abuse, illustrated with visuals of a church and a priest.
Drawn to NYC, Cale speaks of his disciplined study of natural harmonics, frequencies and sustained tones via La Monte Young, while living on Ludlow Street with Tony Conrad and Angus MacLise (the VU’s first drummer). They enjoy the pure harmonies of The Everly Brothers and The Beatles. They determine that the most stable tuning frequency is the 60-cycle hum of a refrigerator – the drone of western civilization – which affects the cerebral cortex in the most favorable way – as it resembles the cycles of the brain during sleep. All that was needed now was… AMPLIFICATION!
Haynes’ film covers Reed’s time as a staff writer for Pickwick Records, churning out songs for compilation records sold at Woolworth’s. But Lou wanted to “…write about pain – about things that hurt, about reality, as I knew it… communicating to people on the outside.” To make up for Lou’s physical present-day absence, his looming presence is evident in close-ups from Warhol screen tests, in which his soulful eyes scream out, “I’m here!”
Lou leaves for Syracuse, NY and meets his mentor, poet/writer Delmore Schwartz. He embraces the beat poets. When they meet in NYC, Cale highly appreciates Lou’s lyrical stories, feeling that they are under-served by conventional musical styles. Enter guitarist Sterling Morrison (whom Lou met in Syracuse), whose wife speaks in the film as well. Moe Tucker’s tribal drumming is the missing ingredient.
We are so derailed by the false definition of The Velvet Underground as the start of punk, that we fail to comprehend the warmth of their sound, and how it makes our hearts sing. It’s all in the drone.
The Velvet Underground’s merging of classical/primitive sounds – essentially avant-garde with a beat – is magical. There was nothing like it – then or now. Once we embraced the oddity of the sounds, we could receive them as vibrations. Soon, Cale and Reed adapt each other’s sounds; Cale begins to rock, and Reed’s guitar veers toward the avant-garde.
(Importantly, the study and reverence of the drone was a preoccupation of Lou and John’s. Lou continued the search throughout his life for that perfect note. He tried to reach it and often hit that sublime, sustaining note on his guitar. We could see him levitate on stage when he found it. He took it to the extreme with Metal Machine Music. It was prevalent on The Bells, and in most of his work. – mb)
The Velvets’ hypnotic sound is a strange and wonderful anomaly, endearing us to these brilliant freaks who used their intelligence in an extremely subversive way.
Impressed by Warhol’s work ethic and adopting him as a dysfunctional father-figure, the Velvets rehearse for a self-produced album. There is a fantastic film clip of the band members eating bananas in homage to their Warhol-designed album cover. And here comes the divisive, yet perfect addition by Warhol of “blonde iceberg” Nico, and the friction that it caused. (Nico was placed for the ridiculous reason that nobody thought that Lou had charisma, but soon everyone would fall in love with him.) Lou and Nico also fell in love/hate. (Cale immediately embraced Nico. He would work beautifully with her throughout her life).
The VU’s purpose is not entertainment. There is lots of aggression, rebellion and disdain. As Mekas famously said, “If everybody walked out of your concert – it’s a successful concert!” Nico describes their sound as, “Like a storm outside.” However, the commotion is balanced by an undeniable beauty – from the utmost sonic abuse to the gorgeous ‘Sunday Morning.’ Cale describes their music as “elegant and brutal” saying that it recognizes danger, and the value it has. The mesmerizing drone of the VU permeates the film.
The band performed live, under Andy’s sponsorship in Uptight – “The biggest discoteque in the world!” Flickering lights and films of the band rehearsing are projected upon the on-stage performance, as they play live at Mekas’ Cinemateque, and later as The Exploding Plastic Inevitable for a month at The Dom in Greenwich Village (accompanied by whip dancers Gerard Malanga and Mary Woronov, who also speaks brilliantly in the film). The gigs are attended by everyone from underground and from uptown. There’s also some amazing footage of yellow-haired Nico singing at the Dom, and commentary from her accompanist when she went solo, Jackson Browne.
Then comes a tour (we see Nico driving the bus) which takes them to the west coast – the antithesis of their monochromatic, dark aesthetic. Like vampires, they figuratively shield themselves from the sunlight and the hippies at the Tropicana Motel during the Summer of Love. Moe spews her disdain for the peace and love culture. Their live gig at a psychiatric convention is the greatest irony.
At the halfway point in the film is some cool footage of band members receiving a tarot card reading, which tells them there are a lot of good things happening business-wise. The Wheel of Fortune card also comes up, and “a lot of competition” is expected. That would turn out to be within the band itself.
The VU begins to implode while recording their speedy second album White Light / White Heat, the title of which Lou says is about enlightenment. The engineer felt differently, and left the room. This album contains disturbingly glorious, seventeen-minute improv jam ‘Sister Ray.’
See my story about the album White Light / White Heat:
Lou, out of jealousy, fires both Warhol and Cale, who is blind-sided. This is a shame, as John was one of Lou’s greatest admirers. Cale talks about this politely. He goes on to produce The Stooges’ debut album.
For the self-titled VU album No. 3 comes Doug Yule (whom Cale says he has never met), with Lou fronting more of a rock band format, adding quieter songs such as ‘Candy Says,’ ‘Jesus’ and ‘Pale Blue Eyes.’
(Fun Facts: Some cover versions of songs from this album… Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry did a great cover version of ‘What Goes On’ in which he also incorporated ‘Beginning to See the Light’ on his fifth solo album The Bride Stripped Bare in 1978. Glen Campbell covered ‘Jesus’ at age 72 on his 2008 Meet Glen Campbell. These videos are linked below. – mb)
Loaded brings us ‘Rock & Roll,’ ‘Sweet Jane,’ and the epic ‘New Age.’ Moe talks of her devastation when Lou walked away from the band after their Max’s Kansas City gigs, returning home to his parents. His mind was made up. He needed a break.
(Another fun fact: Listen to Rachel Sweet’s wonderful version of ‘New Age’ on her album Protect the Innocent – linked below. – mb)
The shooting of Andy Warhol in 1968 (by Valerie Solanis) is portrayed in a montage of clips and photos – in reverent silence.
At the end, a list of all the band members’ subsequent individual accomplishments scrolls by, to the accompaniment of ‘All Tomorrows Parties.’ Included are Reed and Cale’s Songs for Drella, and a shot of the 1993 VU reunion.
There is a surprising film clip of Andy with Lou circa 1974 – in his Rock n’ Roll Animal guise. They are looking at Guy Peellaert’s book Rock Dreams, of his rock star paintings (while Lou secures some drugs over the phone). Lou reveals that he has recently spoken to Moe and to Cale. A photo of Lou with his love, Laurie Anderson followed by one of the last ever close-ups taken of him, shocks us back to the present reality of how long ago this all happened.
There is also a scrolling ‘Where are they now?’ list – so sad to see how many are no longer with us. It is particularly jarring when reading the deaths and ages at which they passed. The film’s ending features the gorgeous close-up 1972 Bataclan footage of ‘Heroin’ live. A brown-haired Nico is present.
At the end, the trance is broken. We again face stark reality – in bittersweet sadness.
The VU flickered throughout a relatively short time, burning out quickly. But their sound still reverberates as an infinitely sustained “Ohm,” humming through space and time, and through the hearts and minds of those who understand and appreciate it. We are thankful to Haynes for this documentation.
(The film graphics are all in the same lower-case font as John Lennon’s Imagine album lettering, which is really cool!)
The Velvet Underground documentary is in selected cinemas now. It is also available on Apple TV+
It’s wonderful that documentary films have transcended the 90-minute format. The VU documentary is 2 hrs. 15 mins.
Edgar Wrights fabulous new documentary on Sparks (The Sparks Brothers) is 2 ½ -hour hours.
My film review: The Sparks Brothers
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