Fifteen films are shortlisted for Best Documentary Feature at the 2022 Oscars, including The rescueabout the 2018 mission to rescue a junior football team trapped in a cave in Thailand, and Simple as water, intimate portrait of four Syrian families. The most experimental film on the list, however, is that of Todd Haynes. The Velvet Undergroundwhich has visual quirks and idiosyncrasies that fit its subject matter perfectly.
It follows the career of the New York rock band of the same name, whose limited output (just four studio albums) has had an altogether disproportionate influence on the history of rock music.
Formed in 1964 around the core of irascible singer and guitarist Lou Reed and avant-garde musician John Cale, The Velvet Underground’s musical and aesthetic approach would inspire countless artists, from David Bowie to REM, and Talking Heads. at U2. Lester Bangs, the eminent rock critic of the 1970s, had no hesitation when he said, “Modern music begins with the Velvets.” Haynes’ documentary attempts, with visual flair, to explain some of the reasons.
“What’s amazing about them is that you have two of the most talented human beings of all time in the same band,” says Sasha Frere-Jones, music critic and self-proclaimed Velvet Underground obsessive. “You have this incredible moment where Cale uses feedback, hum and amplification, with Lou Reed, who is just one of the greatest songwriters of all time. The confluence of elements that went into in this group is… well, it’s not minor.
Cale and Reed’s chance collision in New York in the mid-1960s seems entirely unlikely. Cale, born in Wales in 1942, arrived in New York after graduating from the University of London and seeks to continue his study of serious avant-garde composers of the time such as John Cage, Cornelius Cardew and The Monte Young. Reed’s ambitions, meanwhile, were more materialistic. In the documentary, Reed’s friend Allan Hyman tells the story of a record company executive who listened to some of Reed’s songs and asked him what his ambitions were. “I want to be rich and I want to be a rock star,” he replied. “And I’m gonna be rich and I’m gonna be a rock star whether you handle my music or not.”
Impeccable artistic integrity was where their interests overlapped. As Cale pushed musical boundaries with sustained, hypnotic improvisations and considered how they might intersect with rock and roll, Reed drew inspiration from the lyrics of writers such as Allen Ginsberg and William S Burroughs, and books such as Hubert Selby Jr. Last outing in Brooklyn. “That’s what I want to do, except with drums and guitar,” he later recalled.
Reed’s often gritty imagery would be underpinned by the sparse drum patterns of Cale, Moe (Maureen) Tucker and the percussive rhythm guitar of Sterling Morrison. On their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, together, they will explore new musical universes. “The idea of combining RnB and Wagner was just around the corner,” Cale recalls in the film.
The material they would record might not have had a big commercial impact, but its influence was sustained and profound. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1982, musician and producer Brian Eno said, “Velvet Underground’s first record only sold 30,000 copies in its first five years. Still, it was an extremely important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.
It was nominally produced by artist Andy Warhol, who basically gave the band the freedom to do whatever they wanted, but also brought in model and actress Nico to provide vocals and, dare he be said, a bit of glamour. Given Warhol’s fame and the band’s close ties to New York’s vibrant art scene, the idea that the Velvets were extremely obscure is a misreading of history, according to Frere-Jones. “People knew them. A lot of people didn’t like them because the music was harsh and weird. But people knew. And if you wanted to do something extreme, well, The Velvet Underground gave you permission.
This “permission” was enthusiastically accepted by those who had musical ambitions but perhaps had few resources to work with. As one observer in the documentary notes: “[Reed] can’t sing, he can’t play, but everything he does resonates. The Velvet Underground showed the world that you don’t have to be musically accomplished to create great art.
“They were making really powerful music out of the smaller bits,” says Frere-Jones. More importantly, as musician Jonathan Richman notes in the film, they inspired the breaking of convention. “You could put two pieces together that seemed to be enough,” says Frere-Jones. “Before, you didn’t dare [produce something] it was, shall we say, just comments plus words. But all of a sudden, you could.
The Velvets also allowed bands to be antagonistic, tough, and goofy, and that’s perhaps the main reason they’ve remained a go-to for so long. “I think there’s a lot of violence in The Velvets and Lou in particular,” says Frere-Jones. “People usually want nice-sounding music, and they never did. If you’re interested in music or art that embodies the word “No”, the Velvets are very interesting, simply because they were so off-putting.
The majority of artists like to think of themselves as unique, somewhere outside the mainstream. The Velvet Underground’s willful disregard for musical and behavioral norms proved to subsequent generations of musicians that if you take risks, you can leave your mark. You might not make a lot of money – if at all – but you’ll retain your artistic integrity and maybe create something that, as Richman says of The Velvet Underground, “helped me understand the life “.
Updated: February 6, 2022, 2:16 p.m.