The VELVET UNDEGROUND – ” The Velvet Underground: A Documentary Film By Todd Haynes – Music From The Motion Picture Soundtrack “

Posted: April 15, 2022 in MUSIC

Just when you start to believe there are overtold stories with nothing left to reveal, a director such as Todd Haynes comes along and explodes (in Warholian terms) the plastic inevitable. In telling the retread tale of how a New York poet/guitarist such as Lou Reed met a Welsh avant-classicist such as John Cale and so on, Haynes’ “The Velvet Underground” focuses on lesser publicized elements of how the drone-and-drug-filled sounds of The VU commenced. 

Finding, however, that there was almost no live concert footage (unlike, say, Reed/Cale associates such as Bowie or Dylan, whose every move was captured on camera), Haynes—with a keen eye and historical curation for the Pop Art and the experimental film of the late-1950s and early-’60s—welcomed the mother of invention as his collaborator. Along with interviewing and dedicating his documentary to legendary NYC underground cineaste Jonas Mekas, “The Velvet Underground” features great elements of Warhol’s experimental films such as Empire, Sleep, and his Screen Test series, along with clips of color-saturated, avant-garde classics such as Scorpio Rising and Flaming Creatures so as to pen a visual homage to the 1960s film world. Closer to an art gallery exhibition than a typical rock-doc, Haynes’ VU film is a love letter to a scene, and not just a sound.

What the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray release adds—what you wanted the home media release to do from the start—beyond offering interview outtakes with Cale, Tucker, Mekas, and Factory actor and dancer Mary Woronov, is entire full versions of the avant-garde films excerpted in the movie, including those of Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith, along with Piero Heliczer’s Venus in Furs. There’s a real and formal cinematic magic to be found with this inclusion—dare I say, it’s now a work of art—something more awesome than just the vividly alive bites of A/V that Haynes teasingly flashes at you during his run at The Velvet Underground. Without exaggeration, Criterion just made the very best music documentary of our time better still, something worthy of both blinding white light and white heat.

Along with welcoming Maureen Tucker’s economic drumming and Sterling Morrison’s Gamelan guitar lines, and connecting with Andy Warhol and Factory minions such as Edie Sedgwick and Fellini-actress-turned-one-note-chanteuse Nico, Haynes leans into more personal stories of a young Reed—the pre-Stonewall queer poet/lyricist and his early coffeehouse days—and the student Cale. Because Cale is the only co-founder left alive (and radically active: his new album “Mercy” comes out in January), his is the lion’s share of real-time opinion. How things heated up—with almost no money—for the sake of their eponymous-titled debut, then broke down with Reed’s cattiness and provocation pushing Cale out of a band he helped create after VU’s outré and scarier second album “White Light/White Heat”.

This soundtrack is curated by the documentary’s director, Todd Haynes, and music supervisor Randall Poster. It includes well-known and rare tracks from the band as well as songs and performances that influenced The Velvet Underground, including the doo-wop of The Diablos, the ground breaking rock and roll of Bo Diddley, and the avant-garde compositions of La Monte Young. Its booklet also features exclusive liner notes by Haynes.

Featuring some of the band’s most well-known tracks, rarities and songs that influenced them, the soundtrack serves as the perfect introduction to the band and companion piece to the film and features such favourites as “Sunday Morning,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” “Pale Blue Eyes,” “I’m Waiting for The Man” and “Sweet Jane,” as well as the mono version of “Heroin” and the rare cut “Foggy Notion.” Also featured are live versions of “After Hours” and “Sister Ray,” Nico’s “Chelsea Girls,” and the tongue-in-cheek novelty song “The Ostrich” by The Primitives, an early band formed by Lou Reed and John Cale.

Recording the first Velvet Underground LP at Scepter Studios New York in April 1966. Sterling Morrison is playing a rare Jennings built Phantom Mark III which would have been gifted by Thomas Organ in the period prior to their Italian stock arriving – note the ‘Vox’ sticker on the body that was often applied to artist loan stock. John Cale’s JMI Phantom bass had this sticker too. Hard to be certain which tracks – if any – this guitar appeared on (Sterling also used Lou’s Gretsch and a Kent Copa 532). But listening to the record (and owning the same model Kent which has the destinctive tone clearly audible on ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’) I’d put money on the Mk III or Sterlings Phantom VI being used on ‘Heroin’ behind Lou’s strummed Gretsch. Food for thought anyway.

“The Velvet Underground: A Documentary Film By Todd Haynes – Music from the Motion Picture Soundtrack” collects a lot of the music that we hear and watch in the documentary. The set opens with the Velvet Underground’s classic “Venus In Furs” (from the fabulous and unparalleled 1967 debut album “The Velvet underground & Nico”). We then go back in time and get a number of older tracks which heavily influenced the band members, such as the delightful 1954 “The Wind” by the Diablos and later a scorching 1963 live track “Road Runner” by Bo Diddley. In between we get a 6 minute. experimental instrumental by the Theater of Eternal Music. Best of all, we get a rollicking “The Ostrich”, a 1964 single by the Primitives, a pre-VU band, fleshed out by several early VU track, all from the 1967 debut album, including an interesting “Heroin”, here from the original mono version from the album. And we even get a Nico solo track, the wonderful “Chelsea Girls”, from her 1967 debut solo album.

Side two opens with the 19+ minute live track “Sister Ray” (originally from the band’s second album “White Light/White Heat”). This live track was recorded in New York on April 30th, 1967 and the audio quality is not the greatest, but it’s obviously an important historical recording to have. I must admit, “Sister Ray” never was one of my favourite VU songs. “Pale Blue Eyes” (from the 1969 “The Velvet Underground” album) follows. We then get “Foggy Notion”, which first appeared on the “VU” outtakes album released in 1985, but this is the remixed version (from “The Velvet Underground 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition”). It is followed by and excellent “After Hours” live track (recorded on November 6th, 1969 in San Francisco). The last side is rounded out by the classic “Sweet jane” (from “Loaded”), “Ocean” (from the “VU” outtakes album), and lastly, one more track from the band’s 1967 debut album “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, which plays over the documentary’s closing credits.

If you are interested in a more comprehensive overview of the entire Velvet Underground, there are a number of compilations out there that will serve you better than this. The 2CD package comes with a 16 page booklet, including 2 page liner notes from Todd Haynes himself, but more importantly, the booklet also has detailed recording credits for all of the 16 songs.

As to the movie itself, this documentary is not your regular rock documentary. Instead, director Todd Haynes provides a subjective look at not just how the Velvet Underground came about, but more broadly what New York was like in the early/mid 1960s, including Andy Warhol’s The Factory and many other aspects. The amount of unseen footage and photos from that era is quite amazing. Bottom line: “The Velvet Underground”, both the soundtrack and the movie, is a winner for anyone who is a fan of VU or simply interested in understanding a slice of rock music history.

A Stunning documentary. I saw it at my local cinema on the big screen with the music very loud and detailed as so it should. Captures New York in the sixties, fast, split screen, interviews, live footage, Warhol etc. I was in a state of shell at the end, drained but exhilarated.

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