Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
The Velvet Underground will play Nov. 3-7 at the Northwest Film Forum—onsite, that is—and that’s the (admittedly somewhat dizzying) way to see this movie.
Mixed feelings approaching this one. The idea of Todd Haynes doing a documentary about the Velvet Underground suggests the arthouse-biopic approach of his previous forays into Chronicles of Rock—his Bob Dylan film, I’m Not There, for instance, a mosaic featuring seven different actors as Dylan, yet never naming him; a sputtering experiment, buoyed by some ecstatic song sequences and lovely insight from Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger. Or Velvet Goldmine, a warp on various 70s glitter-rock subjects, a movie that has many fans but struck me as insufferably arch. I much prefer Haynes’ genuinely underground rock biopic, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which comes on like a smartass stunt (the roles are played by Barbie dolls) but gives way to authentic empathy.
I just looked back at my review of Velvet Goldmine, in which I ended by suggesting that a “straight documentary” would better serve the era’s colorful milieu. (I wasn’t trying to be cute by dropping “straight” in a review of Bowie-esque rockers; just writing fast and not really thinking.) Well, The Velvet Underground is anything but straight, in any sense. It is also one of Haynes’ best films, a delirious tribute to a band he clearly loves. But it’s more than tribute, too: Haynes invokes a scene, a style, a spirit; this is his evocation of a New York Art World from the late 50s into the early 70s, a world that not only encompasses music but also underground film screenings (the late Jonas Mekas is one of the key interviewees) and, of course, the various Andy Warhol spaces, whether Factory or Exploding Plastic Inevitable, into which the Velvet Underground folded.
So: The film has multiple screens within its frame (not just visually, but, in a sense, sonically), as one of Warhol’s “screen tests” might play alongside some ratty concert footage while we hear the music from the performance but also an audio interview from someone involved. It’s a scene, evoking a period light show, or what they used to call a happening. The thing is, Haynes orchestrates this with so much enthusiasm that the movie’s antic attack becomes infectious.
Do we also learn things about the band that brought together Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, and (for a while) Nico? Yes, we do, although the definitive portrait probably lies elsewhere (in a, you know, straight documentary). Like an adaptation of Dune, a movie I happened to see on the same day I watched The Velvet Underground, you will likely get more out of this if you already have some familiarity with the source material.
What Haynes is really conjuring here is a kind of utopia, a realm in which art is devoured and created and shared, complete with its dark sides (the movie doesn’t ignore the anger and addiction that coursed through these lives) and its absurdities, as when Warhol, one of the most celebrated artists in the universe, is putting on a rock show in a rented hall and calling out to the assembled throng, “Who knows how to work the lights?” What I really love about the movie is that Haynes, in his own postmodern, quotation-marks-around-everything way, has fallen hard for all this—and so he doesn’t merely describe that cauldron, but blissfully re-creates it on a screen. Who knows how to work the lights? Who cares? Just turn on.
October 15, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.