(USA, 2021); 15th – 21st October, DCA
At times harrowing, at times sweet, director Todd Haynes’ lead on this documentary film effectively recreates the sensory overload of a Velvet Underground record. Haynes’ filmography is not shy of experimental musician biopics and documentaries, including I’m Not There (2007) and Sonic Youth: Disappearer (1990). In this instance, the techniques used often submerge the viewer into the avant-garde and counter-culture lifestyles depicted for the film’s larger part to hypnotising and evocative effect.
Editing is central to achieving this. Film Editors Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz often divided the screen into multiple panels, or a single panel with untypical use of negative space or changes in aspect ratio. The panels are taken up by either archived footage (often drawn from Andy Warhol’s ‘Factory’ recordings) or still images which are constantly superseded to develop, narrated by archived and contemporary interviews, along with tracks from the band’s discography.
Exploring ‘Velvet Underground’ members Lou Reed and John Cale’s arrivals in NYC (preceding the band’s formation), Haynes shifts the speed of optical information from the previous segment. Footage of a bustling metropolis flashes across the scene, cut with Pop Art advertisements soon to be enveloped by myriad black-and-white panels depicting Allen Ginsberg and other creatives spliced with urban imagery.
This is juxtaposed with a later segment of the film, marking the arrival of singer Nico to firstly NYC, secondly ‘The Factory’, and finally ‘The Velvet Underground’. The panels become less frantic, lingering on the images and footage, with zooms becoming calmer. The change in pace is welcome, as the aesthetically pleasing montages risk frying the viewer’s corneas with an absurdist dropper of ECT, gay sex, opioids, and counter-culture musical composition. Additionally, the reprieve communicates a shift in the band’s creative vision, later replicated during the departure of Cale, the addition of Doug Yule and recording of ‘Loaded’. This is complemented with the use of ‘Candy Says’, the jump-cut panels switching to the drum’s relaxed beat.
Audio operator Juliana Mesa and music coordinator Milena Erke take responsibility for The Velvet Underground’s soundtrack. The film opens with the repeating violin, manic guitar and rumbling drums of ‘Heroin’, set to abstract, flashing imagery. This establishes the tone of the film to come, with the music panning left and right across the auditorium speakers, creating an effect of both disorientation and intrigue – this is going to be unusual.
The panning technique does also cause the low point of the film in which the bouncing violins cover up and distort information delivered by interviewees. It may have been deliberate but I found it to be annoyingly distracting.
An incredibly subtle and inspired use of sound comes when the interviewees begin to discuss the uses of frequencies to communicate with certain parts of the brain. A drone begins as the relation between refrigerator hum and dream-states are explained by an enthusiastic Cale. This drone continues as Warhol’s ‘The Kiss’ plays in its original reduced frame rate. The sound continues still as fuzzy footage of the Empire State Building plays on screen. Hypnotised, the viewer watches on. The drone is then layered with screeching strings which echo the start of the film.
With much of the original and subsequent band dead and buried at this point, many of us who never had the chance to see ‘The Velvet Underground’ live will feel like we missed out. This documentary film touches on what I imagine it to have been like. It scratches an itch that needed scratching. It satisfies a thirst and satiates a hunger. It hits hard, fast and unrelenting. It is ‘The Velvet Underground’.