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Music documentaries often fall into a familiar trap. They present an incessant parade of talking heads, all of which testify to the band's mastery and ingenuity that the documentary is about, sometimes to the point where one would want to renounce that band.

This is problematic enough with a traditional rock outfit, but when you focus on the greatest avant-garde rock band of all time, The Velvet Underground, you have to expect more; Director Todd Haynes' new film about the groundbreaking New York band understands that, and I'm grateful for it.

His documentation is artistic and unconventional, disturbing and alienating, four words that could also describe The Velvet Underground itself. It's Documentary As Performance, unsurprisingly from the director who did a Bob Dylan biopic with six different actors (including Cate Blanchett) portraying the icon.

The Velvet Underground was famously associated with Andy Warhol and The Factory, and Haynes consistently uses Warholian split screens, long shots of the band members simply but intensely staring into the camera. There is Lou Reed, whose eyes scream hatred of something, of everything, and also a twinkle of genius lurks; There's the cool distance from John Cale, the look of a man who knows his outstanding musical talent.

It is an electrical symbiosis, audience and artist that connects Haynes in completely unexpected ways; while Reed and Cale narrate their own lives in the split-screen background, it's as if they're hearing it for the first time.

The artistic direction of Haynes ’film was dictated by the sad fact that very few concert recordings of The Velvet Underground are available. Instead, he interweaves archival material, often shot by Warhol himself, with still photos from New York in the 1960s and speaks to one another in an avant-garde composition.

Maureen "Moe" Tucker, her exuberant and charismatic drummer, is interviewed extensively, as is John Cale, the only two remaining members of the original line-up. Cale coolly discusses his contentious relationship with Reed and speaks authoritatively about music, but it's Tucker who really captivates: this little woman who competes with the egos of Cale and Reed, the famous beauty of Nico, the laid-back talent of Sterling Morrison on guitar, was always there during the madness and ecstasy; If she remembers that time, she remains remarkably humble at 77.

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Brian Eno famously said, "The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band," and it is Jonathan Richman who best exemplifies this in the documentary: The Proto-Rock Legend speaks with a feverish intensity and an unrelenting passion for the effect the band had on his life, from the handover of their first album by a friend as from fate, to the description of each member's unique playing style, to the memory of the magic, to see them in concert.

The documentary is also a poetic snapshot of New York in the 1960s. The whole seductive intensity of Warhol's factory scene – The Velvet Underground were his house band for a while – lightning bolts across the screen, legendary artists appear – poet Allen Ginsberg, filmmaker Jonas Mekas, Warhol icon Mary Woronov, writer Amy Taubin, musician La Monte Young – and disappear just as quickly. Your life somehow feels both very present and very distant.

Nobody should expect a standard report on the band's progress: while mostly chronological, Haynes is in love with the classic line-up of Reed, Cale, Morrison and Tucker. When, after one too many disagreements with Reed, Cale left and was replaced by Doug Yule, Haynes did not so much lose interest in the story, but realized that his point was already clear.

Haynes believes in the art of The Velvet Underground, the transgressive outsiders, the avant-garde provocateurs, the four who wore black even when they came to tour in a scorching California.

The film ends with a melancholy montage that takes us through the life and career of the band after The Velvet Underground ended.

They released their own albums, all with different styles, but nothing came close to what they had achieved together. We are reminded that the alluring and adorable Nico has now disappeared, having died far too early in a bicycle accident in 1988; We are reminded that Morrison died in 1995 at the age of only 53, long after settling in a quiet post-underground existence as tug captain among other things; We are reminded that Reed, one of the most iconic figures in music history, died in 2013.

When the movie ended, I was left with a frightening void. I don't think another band as radical as The Velvet Underground will ever come back; I think the conditions of the music culture and economy as they are now preclude that. However, art can be both difficult and essential, and Haynes’ film is a contemporary reminder of that. Maybe, if we're lucky, 10,000 people will see his film and be inspired in a mystical way, like all the bands that followed The Velvet Underground once were.

The Velvet Underground is now available to stream on Apple TV +.


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