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The Velvet Underground…and Nico

“THE VELVET UNDERGROUND”  My rating: B (Apple +)

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Todd Haynes’ new documentary about The Velvet Underground is a movie made by a fan for other fans.

It presumes a certain amount of shared musical history on the part of viewers. It is most definitely NOT “Velvet Underground 101.”  

It’s not interested in dragging out scholarly arguments about the Velvet Underground’s contribution to punk culture or in laying out a careful chronology of the band’s birth and demise.  There’s no analysis of the place of Velvets Lou Reed and John Cale as formidable  solo artists. Heck, I don’t think even one of the band’s songs is played from beginning to end…mostly we get tantalizing snippets. 

Instead Haynes (who has a history of music-themed films like “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” “Velvet Goldmine” and the Dylan-centric “I’m Not There”) strives to give us a broad  impressionistic view of the personalities behind the Velvets and the early-‘60s Bohemian New York milieu which spawned them.

He draws heavily on archival footage of Andy Warhol’s Factory, with its heady mishmash of visual artists, actors, poets, dancers and musicians, creating hallucinogenic montages — including tons of split-screen effects — that look for all the world like one of those early rock concert light shows.

He interviews the two surviving members of the original Velvets (the viola-playing Welshman Cale and the androgynous drummer Maureen Tucker) and draws extensively on audio recordings of the late Lou Reed talking about his time with the band.

Fellow musician Jonathan Richman, a Velvets acolyte back in the day, pops up frequently to discuss why, in his estimation, the band mattered.

There is, of course, a chunk of the film devoted to the late Nico, the neurasthenic German blonde hand-picked by Warhol to be the band’s coolly sexy talisman and, hopefully, their introduction to the commercial mainstream. (Keep dreaming, Andy…not in a million years.)

On some levels “The Velvet Underground” is maddeningly superficial.  The rift between Cale and Reed that led to the latter secretly “firing” the former is written off as a personality clash.  Well, yeah, but how about some details?

And Reed’s notorious bad behavior (often drug-fueled) at various stages of his career is pushed aside and glossed over.

But to watch this doc is to be plunged into the heady world of early art rock with all its dissonance and angst.  It’s a time machine really, and for Velvet fans it’s a nostalgic trip back to the creation of a band that regarded nostalgia as the purview of losers.

| Robert W. Butler

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