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Todd Haynes
Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen Tucker
Todd Haynes
Emerging from the primordial soup of glamour, gutter sleaze, and feverish creativity that was New York’s 1960s underground culture, the Velvet Underground redefined music with its at once raw and exalted blend of experimentation and art-damaged rock and roll.
Rated R.

Aspect Ratio: 1.77:1
English Dolby Atmos
English Dolby Stereo
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 120 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 12/13/2022

• Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Todd Haynes and Editors Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz.
• “Annotations” Subtitle Feature
• 3 Interviews
• 3 Avant-Garde Films
• Trailer
• Booklet


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The Velvet Underground: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (2021)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 21, 2022)

In New York circa 1964, a rock band formed that eventually called itself the Velvet Underground. They went on to release five albums that sold poorly.

However, to paraphrase a well-known saying, everyone who did hear the VU went on to start their own bands. Of course, that doesn’t hold literally true, but it does remain obvious that the VU cast a massive influence far beyond their meager impact on the 1960s rock charts.

With 2021’s The Velvet Underground, we get a look at the band’s existence and impact. Best known for narrative flicks like Velvet Goldmine and Safe, Todd Haynes takes on the topic here.

The film combines various forms of archival footage with sound bites. We hear from musicians Lou Reed, John Cale, Terry Philips, Jackson Browne, Jonathan Richman, David Bowie, Nico, and Doug Yule, Reed’s sister Merrill Reed Weiner, Reed’s childhood friend Allan Hyman, filmmakers Jonas Mekas and John Waters, philosopher Henry Flynt, composer La Monte Young, artists Tony Conrad and Marian Zazeela, Reed’s college friend Richard Mishkin, Reed’s college girlfriend Shelley Corwin, music manager Danny Fields, author Amy Taubin, Sterling Morrison’s widow Martha, actor Mary Woronov, photographer Billy Name, and writer Joseph Freeman.

Underground examines the childhoods and involvement in music of the various band members, the NYC culture of the early-mid 1960s and how this influenced the formation of the VU. It then covers the VU’s growth, collaborations with Andy Warhol and Nico, and the remaining career of the VU.

Admission: try as I might, I never could get into the VU. Though I own the band’s entire (small) catalog and give it the occasional listen, the music just fails to click with me.

That said, I’d look like a fool if I attempted to deny the band’s influence and impact. Whatever I might think if their work, I understand what a monumental impression they made on the rock scene.

My most recent rock documentary experience came with Brett Morgen’s Moonage Daydream. A highly impressionistic look at the life and career of David Bowie, I found it to offer a shockingly dull and disjointed effort.

Granted, I go into a project about Bowie with a wholly different view than I do with a documentary about the Velvet Underground. While I remain ambivalent toward the VU, Bowie stands as arguably my favorite musician of all-time.

In any case, my dislike of Daydream led me to fear Underground would deliver another self-consciously “artsy” program that favors avant garde sensibilities over a coherent journey. Happily, although Haynes indulges in some of those tendencies, he grounds the film with a fairly standard take on the subject matter.

Of course, Haynes throws out a lot of visuals that match the “art scene” vibe, but I can’t complain too much about that. The VU came from that realm so it makes sense to match the music and story with this material.

And Haynes doesn’t allow himself to go nuts in this regard. Haynes manages to give us a fairly effective journey through the roots and development of the VU.

Really, Haynes offers a pretty good mesh of the “art house” feel and a standard biopic. Perhaps that will disappoint some who want a fully avant-garde take but I think Haynes lands a largely effective middle-ground between the abstract and the concrete.

As such, Underground gives us a fairly engaging and informative summary of the band’s existence. While probably not a classic rock documentary, the film delivers the goods and remains an absorbing journey.

The Disc Grades: Picture B/ Audio B/ Bonus B

The Velvet Underground appears in an aspect ratio of 1.77:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. With its mix of new interviews and archival footage, Underground looked fine for this sort of program.

As always, I viewed the old material and the new shots with different expectations, and the archival stuff jumped all over the place. It could look pretty okay at times, but we also got some messy, clips.

I didn’t have any real problems with those, however, as I figured they were about as good as we could get. In any case, the flaws of the old bits didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the program, as they blended just fine and didn’t cause distractions.

Overall, the new footage offered nice visuals. Sharpness was quite good, as virtually no softness impacted on the modern shots, so those elements appeared concise and accurate.

Colors were natural, and no notable defects affected the new footage. Blacks and shadows followed suit, as they seemed perfectly positive. Overall, the visuals were solid given the program’s parameters.

Downcoverted to Dolby TrueHD 7.1, the program’s Dolby Atmos soundtrack suited the material as well. Unsurprisingly, music became the primary beneficiary of the multichannel mix, as the songs spread to the front side and rear channels.

The quality of the instrumental delineation varied, as some tracks boasted really nice localization, whereas others felt less “specific”. Still, the show allowed the various speakers to utilize the music in an involving manner that didn’t seem showy or obnoxious.

Dialogue remained focused on the front center, and effects played a minor role here. Because music acted as the focal point, we got few instances of effects, so they added little to the proceedings.

Audio quality worked well, with speech that seemed natural and concise for the most part. Some archival elements lacked distinctive tones, but those remained in the minority and create no issues.

As mentioned, effects lacked much presence. When they appeared, they seemed acceptably accurate.

Music usually seemed pleasing. Again, some archival clips lacked great range, but the vast majority of the songs stemmed from studio recordings.

These featured solid range and clarity. Given the program’s reliance n music, I felt this became a good “B” soundtrack.

As we head to extras, we begin with an audio commentary from writer/director Todd Haynes and editors Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz. All three sit together for this running, screen-specific look at how they came to the project and its origins, editing and the use of various archival components, music and audio design, aspects of the modern-day interviews, and connected domains.

For a while, this becomes a pretty good nuts and bolts look at how the film came together. However, it tends to lose steam as it goes, so expect diminishing returns the longer into the track you go.

Annotations activates a subtitle feature that identifies all the film clips seen throughout the movie. It becomes helpful and fairly unobtrusive.

Four clips arrive under Interviews. We get “Jonas Mekas, 2018” (20:12), “Mary Woronov, 2018” (13:35), “Jonathan Richman, 2018” (15:51) and “Todd Haynes, John Cale and Maureen Tucker with Jenn Pelly, 2021” (48:36). The first three offer extensions of chats that appear in the movie, whereas the final one offers a group discussion conducted by journalist Pelly.

As expected, the Mekas and Woronov segments give us additional insights about the subjects and their connections to the VU, while Richman discusses the band’s impact. All bring some useful information, though Woronov proves most engaging.

As for the panel, it provides a virtual affair that connects all four via computer. They talk about aspects of the film’s creation as well as their impressions of the final product and memories of the VU’s history.

Occasional nuggets of value emerge and it’s cool to see Tucker and Cale interact, but a lot of the chat devolves into a mutual admiration society. I do wish we heard about the collection of 1990s vintage Star Wars toys behind Tucker, though.

Three segments show up within Avant-Garde Films. Here we find “Award Presentation to Andy Warhol” (12:21), “Venue in Furs” (21:20) and “Walden: Diaries, Notes and Sketches (Excerpt)” (7:46).

A silent flick, “Award: plays more like a collection of outtakes than anything coherent. Maybe that’s the point, but it simply shows Warhol and his acolytes as they snack.

“Furs” also lacks audio, which combined with the terrible condition of the film makes it really tough to tell what’s happening. Again, that might be the case no matter what, but these factors render “Furs” an oddity more than anything else.

At least it tosses in some footage of attractive nude women in bathtubs. We also get glimpses of the nascent VU – which makes the absence of sound more of a disappointment.

Finally, “Walden” offers part of Jonas Mekas’s “film diary”. It includes sound – yay! – and offers superior picture quality compared to the first two. The end result leaves me bored, but I appreciate the inclusion for archival reasons, as it gives us a hint of the avant-garde film scene of the period.

We end with a teaser trailer and a booklet. The latter includes a mix of credits, photos and an essay from music critic Greil Marcus. The booklet finishes the set well.

One of the most influential rock bands ever becomes the focus of The Velvet Underground. Though a little too artsy at times, the documentary usually offers a solid take on its subject matter. The Blu-ray comes with generally positive picture and audio as well as a mix of bonus materials. This winds up as an engaging history lesson.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.3333 Stars Number of Votes: 3
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