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'The Velvet Underground' is half documentary and half exultant experience

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Tolstoy famously opens Anna Karenina by telling us, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Now, keep that in your mind while I take a little detour to talk about Todd Haynes’ new documentary The Velvet Underground, which describes the formation and dissolution of the seminal 1960s rock group, and is half a very good music documentary, and half an extraordinary, exultant experience.

The movie is traditional in its chronology, talking about the musicians in their early years, particularly Lou Reed and John Cale, and then as they became involved with Andy Warhol, formed the band, reached their creative heights, and eventually fell apart—or, really, petered out.

But Haynes is a delightfully inventive director, and though this is his first documentary, he brings that creativity here. The movie is visually thrilling, capturing the excitement of the New York art world with split screens, archival footage, and animation, even cleverly using some of Warhol’s own film experiments to sort of skirt the typical documentary talking head. And as you might hope, the sound is just as magnificent, swirling all around us in the way the band’s music engulfed stunned crowds.

At least, all of this is true for a while. As the band’s cohesion frays, the movie itself loses a little steam, and we move into something more like a standard documentary. Haynes’ use of music and sound becomes less energetic as he sits on the band’s songs for longer stretches, and the visual excitement lets down a bit. He leans more on interviewees saying mostly meaningless things like “the band burned too bright.” All of this may have been intentional, the band’s mood and music also changed in its later days, and this may reflect that. But it’s also just not quite as exciting.

And this is what got me to Anna Karenina, and unhappy families, and wondering if maybe the inverse is true for musical groups—bands more or less seem to be unhappy in the same ways. It’s not actually that interesting to see a group dissolve, that story’s been told. Creation is more inspiring than destruction, and I wonder if this affected Haynes, too. Seeing how The Velvet Underground melded the imaginations and talents of true musical and artistic geniuses to generate their sounds and live performances is exhilarating. It’s what happened when they came together that’s unique and incendiary, and it’s that white light and heat that really sets this film on fire.

'The Velvet Underground' is on Apple Plus.

Fletcher Powell's biggest claim to fame is that he owns a copy of every Bo Jackson baseball card ever made. He's done other things, too, like work in the stock market, but that wasn't so fun. So now he's KMUW’s Production Manager and host of All Things Considered, as well as KMUW's movie reviewer and producer/co-host of the podcast You're Saying It Wrong.