It’s becoming something of a rite of passage for successful directors to make documentaries about their favourite bands. Ron Howard covered The Beatles (with Peter Jackson’s Get Back series on the way), Shane Meadows explored The Stone Roses, and this year Edgar Wright shared his love for Sparks. This week director Todd Haynes (Carol, Dark Waters) looks at The Velvet Underground, diving into the era and influences that inspired his breakthrough.
The film doesn’t introduce the band, assuming that the majority of the people who watch will already be fans. Nonetheless, the narrative is loosely familiar, as the remaining band members discuss their backgrounds, inspirations, and the experience of being in New York in the Sixties, pushing their knowledge of what’s possible with sound to the limit.
There are only so many ways you can craft a rock documentary, because most bands have a similar story – kids from restrictive backgrounds who discover a scene they connect with, and form a group to express themselves. Haynes seems aware of this, and so archiving their journey is a secondary concern. Instead, he delivers a split screen art adventure, surrounding the viewer with the sounds and sights of the time. It’s the New York of Warhol, Ginsberg, and many others, with archive film clashing against talking head testimonials. It’s a study in tone, and considering Haynes’ history with music films – the ‘non-biopics’ I’m Not There and his first hit Velvet Goldmine – it’s appropriate both to him and the band that this documentary walks a different path.
That’s not to say the interviews aren’t illuminating. A procession of older musicians with wild hair and dark sunglasses recount what it was like, with a tone that suggests that ‘you had to be there’. The sounds and experiments they discuss are played over their words, almost growing out of the anecdotes. There are small moments of humour, such as when founding member John Cale describes moving from The Welsh Valleys to New York and being alarmed at how dirty the Manhattan streets were.
Lou Reed haunts the film, with clips from interviews heard but not seen, his contemporaries talking about him in apocryphal fashion, adding to his image of a figure too vibrant to be real. It’s the type of myth-making he might have sneered at, but the film avoids the hagiography music documentaries often lean on.
The Velvet Underground offers an interesting look at the band and its era that will, for the fans, at least, be essential viewing.