Todd Haynes The Velvet Underground is a visually masterful documentary about a band that changed music but failed to earn enough money and recognition at its peak. Using mostly archival footage and presenting it mostly in split screens, which work, but get overused. Striking a balance is always hard. Both for the director of the film, as well as the band members throughout their careers.
There is so much chaos and just plain weirdness in creation. People like to stereotype artists as those with a singular vision, that toil around their work until they have perfected it. But that is far from the truth. Sometimes one is just curious and experiments. Sometimes you are drunk or high and somebody says something that triggers an idea or set of ideas. But there needs to be passion. That is what the first part of the movie focuses on and is by far the most interesting part of the movie. In an amazing cosmic accident, a bunch of really creative people ended up living together in an apartment in New York. That is the seed of Velvet Underground and everything it will accomplish along the way. People who lived in and around said apartment, were all artists, some visual, some poets, some musicians. Every single one of them completely focused on their art every moment of their day. And naturally, they would bounce ideas and try stuff together. I am more and more certain that this sort of creative pan-spermia is essential for great art. I remember something similar occurring in the documentary Echo in the Valley, where a lot of musicians would just hang out and play stuff day and night. Those musicians would define the era. Velvet Underground also defined music and was influential for a lot of those who came after them, especially Bowie.
You don’t really gain a lot of insight into the band members of Velvet Underground. Knowing some of them and their backstory, it would be an interesting thing to pry deeper into the life of somebody like Nico, who was largely looked down upon and misunderstood. Both in the public eye and with the band, people really underestimated her. Another thing that could have been interesting is the short comment Lou Reed’s sister made about her parents. Lou Reed was gay, and he grew up in a very strict, conservative, religious household. His parents inflicted the torture of gay conversion therapy on him. His sister said that she doesn’t hate what his parents did to him. She says they were merely products of their time and place, their surroundings and upbringings. They were parents who thought that inflicting pain on their child now will save him from a lot of pain later down the line. I can’t imagine what that must be like. But, we also don’t know if what his sister remembers of his parents is what or who they actually were. Nor do we have, in this documentary at least, Lou Reed’s retrospective on those events. This is a very complex moral question, probably deserving of its own documentary. It is easy to say, accept, and don’t inflict pain, but it strikes me more of a case of his parents mistaking this as a Trolley Problem when in fact it is a case and point of complete acceptance coming from complete love and understanding. But then again, the cave is very dark, deep, and scary.
On a person note, this documentary set me aflame with a passion to create.