'The Velvet Underground' Captures the Essence of Its Subject Through Its Filmmaking

To make a documentary, there should be more to it than merely retelling the past and depending on the charm and interesting tales of your talking heads. Films like Edgar Wright's The Sparks Brothers show that documentaries can be just as creative as fiction when they're done effectively.

Music documentary The Velvet Underground by Todd Haynes emphasizes the value of innovation when it comes to capturing the spirit of its subject matter. When it comes to the presentation of the groundbreaking band, the documentary takes care to honor their avant-garde flare by using split screen graphics, Andy Warhol pictures, and cutting-edge editing techniques to tell the tale of the band while also portraying their sense of style. With a camera and an editing suite, director Todd Haynes obviously intended to replicate what the Velvets were doing as Lou Reed explains in the documentary. The Velvets, like Kerouac, Burroughs, and Hubert Selby Jr., were pioneers in avant-garde music with drums and guitar.

The audience doesn't have to wait long to understand where they are after hearing the dissonant guitar over a Baudelaire quotation, staccato editing that sounds like a scratched record cutting between bits of a song, and the long-held Warhol photo of Lou Reed. The audience is quickly immersed in the band's frenetic energy because to Haynes' ability to put them right in the middle of it. Furthermore, the usage of Reed's profile on split screen with an abbreviated tale of Reed's childhood to begin the video not only lends a Velvet Underground and Warhol-esque visual flare to the documentary, but also makes it seem immensely more intimate and heartbreaking. When Reed sees the photographs next to him, he begins to reflect and open up, despite the fact that he was tragically killed in a car accident. The juxtaposition of youthful John Cale (a fellow founding member of the band) next to Reed's gaunt and somewhat lanky-haired image emphasizes the band's obviously distinct and unusual beginnings.

Featured image is courtesy of Apple TV+.
In the video, the juxtapositions appear less forced than in other documentaries that seek to do the same, and frequently resemble the Surrealistic subconscious images that Cale was so interested in exploring musically. A broad range of archival material is used in these photos by Haynes, ranging from vintage advertising to snippets from Maya Deren's arthouse films, so that the eclecticism and vast range of inspirations that went into this band can be felt throughout the narrative. When you think of the best film of the year, The French Dispatch comes to mind. This is the documentary equivalent, with everything from stop-motion animation, different aspect ratios and negative coloration to the usage of overlay pictures being used.

Such approaches aren't only for the sake of it, though, as they're employed to accurately portray the band's era and their mindset at the time of the film. Unlike Jonas Mekas, an avant-garde filmmaker affiliated with the band, Haynes provides us a glimpse into the vivacity of 42nd Street in the early sixties with a series of handheld images of the city's lights and streets. A kaleidoscopic grid of artists and the different arts fills the screen as the interviewee speaks explicitly about the booming cultural environment. This surrounds you in this sensation of inescapable culture.

These aesthetic touches are not unnecessary, but rather enable the band's development to be traced without ever becoming stale, which is a credit to their own musical explorations. In addition, Haynes uses vintage footage in a creative way, when a typical music doc could utilize it as a default. When the documentary comes to the part when it details Reed dismissing Andy Warhol from the band, it serves as an excellent illustration of this. Haynes shows us archival film of an especially wistful-looking Warhol letting go of a balloon and watching it drift into the sky over the stories of other band members. Filmmakers have used old material in a manner that makes it relevant rather than just convenient, giving viewers a clear sense of where they were in their band's history at the time and what it means to them moving forward.

Later, when John Cale leaves the band, a similar moment occurs, but Haynes chooses not to utilize the old footage; instead, the editing and sound design convey the atmosphere of the band's new period. Momentarily, the editing calms down and the mesmerizing images fade away, indicating a more contemplative approach to music from the band's younger members.

Featured image is courtesy of Apple TV+.
In light of Tom Dicillo's When You're Strange documentary on The Doors, the ingenuity of this documentary's use of archival video is all the more apparent when comparing the two films. It seems that DiCillo places vintage film of the band over a timeline-driven narrative, interspersed with freeze-framed shots that nearly always indicate precisely who/what is being addressed. Due to DiCillo's decision to take a more formulaic approach, his film falls short of Haynes' in terms of conveying the band's and the era's frenetic intensity. Even though Cale's comment in the film "wait, the music isn't supporting up what these lyrics are about," Haynes appears to almost lean into it as he himself assures that his cinematography is backing up precisely what it is that made The Velvet Underground so intriguing and distinctive.

However, When You're Strange seems considerably more focused with the plain chronology than anything like the vicarious journey you go on as both viewer and band member with Haynes' film. A multicolored, allegorical mosaic of nature and life concludes Haynes' film, while DiCillo's video finishes with a modest summary of The Doors' active years and amount of albums sold. To conclude the film on such a daring note, Haynes has created a frenzied montage that perfectly captures the band's energy, creative attitudes, and accomplishments, as well as the period in which they lived. Although the avant-garde frame through which Haynes creates the band demonstrates just how vital proper direction is even when outside the medium of fiction, all these attitudes and features may not have shown through.