For hardcore fans of the Velvet Underground — which is to say all fans of the Velvet Underground — Todd Haynes’ new documentary bearing their name is manna from heaven, a film as disobedient, innovative and multilayered as the band itself. The Velvet Underground played with temporality through its druggy, hypnotic music, and The Velvet Underground tells their story through a similar formal lens. Two hours have seldom transpired more quickly, and with such euphoria.
The genius of The Velvet Underground, which is screening at the Gateway in Fort Lauderdale and streaming on Apple TV+, is the extent to which, again like the Velvets themselves, it both satisfies and subverts the formulas that preceded it, dancing on the knife edge of the commercial and the avant-garde.
It provides all the base elements of a standard-issue, behind-the-music rock doc: interviews with the surviving members, confidants and devotees, stills and film clips from their heyday, and course snippets of the extraordinary music, both in demo and fully produced iterations.
We learn all the biographical details we need to understand the band’s singular formation, from John Cale’s early experiments in piano-smashing performance art and drone music to Lou Reed’s harrowing early years undergoing electroshock therapy for his homosexuality (which Haynes also explored in his fictionalized Velvet Goldmine, from 1998) and his outsized rock-star ambitions. These visions coalesced, and took shape, around Andy Warhol and the Factory, resulting in the single greatest debut album in rock history (The Velvet Underground & Nico).
But The Velvet Underground is much more than a dispenser of information and nostalgia about a totemic band. It’s Haynes’ most experimental film since his multi-actor Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There. It’s an endlessly flowing audiovisual collage. Utilizing split screens for most of the running time, he allows two or three or 12 images to fill our visual cortex at one time, so that multiple stimuli jockey for position. Some of this real estate may be taken up by Velvets clips and interviewees; others are comprised of Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger film clips and strobe-lit psychedelic animations. Meanwhile, sounds fade and overlap and groove along to the images.
Under Haynes’ and the band’s sway, I felt very much like Jonathan Richman, the movie’s most effusive fan, whose recollections of discovering the Velvets are a case study in music appreciation and influence. Listening to them is “like being in the presence of Michelangelo,” Richman says.
John Cale, in relating the Velvets’ pioneering sound, suggests that “the idea of combining R&B and Wagner was around the corner.” But The Velvet Underground most resembles the improvisatory restlessness of jazz. It’s a hallucinatory dream and an intoxicating history, and it made me fall in love with them all over again.
I was supposed to have been equally inspired by The Big Scary “S” Word (Greenwich, $19.99 DVD), Yael Bridge’s feature-length documentary trumpeting the benefits of American-style socialism, from its de facto embrace by paradigm-changing presidents like FDR through its utopian solutions to the problems we face today. Here, after all, is a celebration of the ideology I share, persuasively argued by expert authors, academics, even the occasional politician (while Bernie Sanders and AOC are listed on the DVD cover like Hollywood stars, they did not, alas, sit down for Bridge’s movie).
But considering the chasm between today’s anemic Democratic Congress and the comparative boldness of a democratic socialist agenda, the movie’s real-world utility seems as far-out a fantasy as Dune.
Through potent animations, Bridge compellingly presents statistics on capitalism’s ravenous unsustainability; the old saw that five humans own more wealth than the lower 50 percent of the American population never fails to inspire the sharpening of pitchforks. The director presents a case for socialism that dates back to agrarian societies, and whose concepts were embraced by figures from Albert Einstein to Martin Luther King Jr.
She also flits between vignettes of modern activists and dreamers, among them an Oklahoma teacher, barely scraping by on two jobs, who joins a strike with fellow educators; and Lee Carter, a socialist Lyft driver who won a seat in Virginia’s state legislature, and who proudly displays a spartan office furnished by thrift stores. Everyone Bridge documents is so likeable that’s a challenge for all but the hard-right ideologues not to buy what they’re selling.
Whether the people who need convincing will find The Big Scary “S” Word is another story. Socialism, it proffers, is the way out of slavery, of racism, of climate change, of the coronavirus. The movie is a talking point-filled advocacy argument, not a debate on socialism’s merit vis-à-vis alternative systems. I understand the approach; God knows the other sides are presented enough, even on center-left bastions like MSNBC.
But in an already atomized media ecosphere, this limits its viewership to so much choir-preaching. A DVD blurb from The Daily Beast calls it “the film about socialism the GOP doesn’t want you to see.” Something tells me Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy aren’t losing sleep over the trickle of viewers in Madison and Berkeley who are seeking this out.
The movie ends on a note of relative uplift: Lee Carter, of the Virginia House of Delegates, won re-election in 2019. But there’s since been an unpleasant coda. With zero support from his fellow Democrats — Manchinites all, evidently — Carter was primaried this year. His term will end in January, after trumpeting all the right ideas and accomplishing little. “I’m relieved to say that I’ve done my part, and now it’s someone else’s turn,” he tweeted, adding that he planned on becoming a farmer. A nobler profession indeed.