Review by Sean Boelman
Todd Haynes is an exceptional filmmaker, so the release of his first-ever documentary film was obviously highly anticipated. And as one would expect, The Velvet Underground is not an average rock documentary, the filmmaker’s and subjects’ unique sensibilities come together to form a genuinely distinctive movie about the musical process.
The movie tells the story of The Velvet Underground, a band whose experimentation with sound became highly influential in the world of rock-and-roll. However, unlike a majority of rock documentaries, this film isn’t just about the eponymous band — it’s more about the scene that popped up around them and allowed them to become who they are.
This is a documentary more for people who are already familiar with rock-and-roll history, as it covers so much ground that pre-existing knowledge would be useful to have. Haynes connects the dots between The Velvet Underground and some of the most popular musicians of the day quite well, but it requires a moderate understanding of the technicalities of music to follow these developments.
There’s something to be said about the counterculture movement of the 1960s (and to a lesser extent, the 1970s), but this is more of a love letter to music. Haynes is clearly much more interested in the musical aspects of the story than the way in which the music reflected the anxieties of society at the time, but if the viewer aligns with those interests, this is a fascinating watch.
Since the movie is about the overall movement that The Velvet Underground started in the music industry, there isn’t as much insight into the band itself as one would expect. There are portions of the film which are devoted to each band member, but this is by no means a biography. Those looking for deeper insight into the personal lives of the band should look elsewhere.
Unsurprisingly, the soundtrack of the movie is very diverse and eclectic. In addition to the songs of The Velvet Underground, which span a wide range in and of themselves, the film features music from the various groups that they influenced. From some of the most popular tunes of the ‘60s and ‘70s to inventive and obscure songs, there is a lot of great music to hear in the movie.
On a technical level, this is one of the most accomplished music documentaries in recent memory. Although one shouldn’t be surprised that Haynes’s newest film is technically impressive, the fact that it is so confident despite being his documentary debut is astounding. There’s rightfully a lot of experimentation to the visual style, fitting given the experimental nature of the subjects’ music, echoing some of the groundbreaking techniques of the classics in the genre.
The Velvet Underground is an amazing documentary, although that won’t come as much of a shock. Those wanting a traditional movie need not bother, but this is a rewarding viewing experience in more ways than one expects.
The Velvet Underground hits theaters and Apple TV+ on October 15.