For fans of The Velvet Underground, you are in for an absolute treat.
If The Velvet Underground is unknown to you, you have the perfect opportunity to add to your knowledge of American music, art, and the history of this fine city. On September 30, the 59th New York Film Festival hosted its first of two screenings of the new Todd Haynes documentary, “The Velvet Underground.” On the night, moviegoers gathered in the Starr Theater at Alice Tully Hall, and the air was buzzing, the audience excited. From the opening comments of festival director Eugene Hernandez to the brief Q&A with Mr. Haynes that followed the film, the crowd was fully in it—applause and cheers became every bit a part of the sound of the documentary as the music pulsing from the theater’s speakers.
The film opens with a quote from Charles Baudelaire, “Music fathoms the sky.” And from there, we take off. Todd Haynes immerses the viewer in the New York of the early 60s. He weaves together a rich tapestry of archival footage, avant-garde film clips, contemporary interviews, music, and voice-over dialogue. The creative activity of the city at the time is best referenced with Andy Warhol, whose collaboration with The Velvet Underground in the early years is integral to the story. But avant-garde filmmakers like Jonas Mekas, and revolutionary musicians and composers like La Monte Young and John Cale deepen our understanding of the context.
In a short two hours, Mr. Haynes, taking inspiration of such cinema, delights us with an energetic, at times frenetic, visual, and aural feast. From the group’s beginnings to its predictable end, we are privy to the ins and outs of their creative process, their collaborations, their inspirations, their frustrations, and their successes. The documentary focuses on those who were there, rather than relying on critics, historians, and others to document the story of the group. The result is intimacy and authenticity to what we see on the screen. We learn how Lou Reed and others in The Velvet Underground grapple with the vulnerabilities and frailties of life, and how they turn that pain into music.
In the short question and answer session that followed, Mr. Haynes had the opportunity to talk about his introduction to The Velvet Underground in college. Developing his own creative sensibilities at the time, he noted that finding the group was like “discovering a root I didn’t know existed.” Inspired in part by the fact that there were no documentaries treating The Velvet Underground, the director saw an opportunity to make this film. He hopes this, his first documentary as a filmmaker, will inspire others to make art and to develop a sense of resistance to dominant culture and trends and a value of that resistance. And there the director gets to the crux of the matter. As he says, “Art happens where you resist culture.”
For the curious and those in need of inspiration, if you can’t catch a screening the “The Velvet Underground” during the 59th New York Film Festival, you’ll be pleased to know that the documentary opens on October 13, 2021, at Film at Lincoln Center.