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

Aaron ConnBlu-Ray Review, Miscellaneous, Movies, MusicLeave a Comment

Velvet Underground Criterion

Velvet Underground CriterionA little over a year after its premiere on Apple TV+, the Todd Haynes-directed Velvet Underground documentary has received a physical release. The documentary, simply entitled The Velvet Underground, is an informative and eye popping overview of the New York rock band’s career. Given the band’s artistic nature, it’s only fitting that the Criterion Collection add this to their ever expanding catalogue of releases. As to be expected from Criterion, this comes with a slew of extras- giving viewers the ultimate Velvet Underground experience.

The Movie
Coming from director Todd Haynes (Velvet GoldmineI’m Not There), The Velvet Underground tells the story of the titular band. As to be expected with documentaries, this is done through the use of brand new interviews and archival footage of the band. For new interviews, Haynes used a wide variety of interviewees. For starters, John Cale and Maureen Tucker appear as the lone surviving members of the band (Doug Yule, Cale’s replacement, declined to be in the movie). Along with them, you get to hear from people such as La Monte Young, Danny Fields and Mary Woronov, all of whom were there when the band were together. Archival footage is shown in the form of reels of film shot by Andy Warhol, along with scenes from avant-garde short films that were made back in the day. Despite the deaths of Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison and Nico, they can still be heard through interviews they gave during their lifetimes.

Velvet Underground documentary still

Examples of both the split screen use and the avant-garde footage used in the documentary.

While seemingly a conventional set up for a rock documentary, Haynes spices things up through the use of split screen. This is a feast for the eyes, as viewers are taken on a hypnotic journey through the use of interviews, short films and (of course) the music by the Velvet Underground. In a way, the use of split screen is an homage to what Warhol did with the band: when the band performed live, Warhol would have film projected onto the band. This style of filmmaking might make some viewers feel uneasy and at times, it is a lot to take in. Still, this is a brilliant way to tell the story of the Velvet Underground.

Prior to this movie, the closest thing to a documentary was a South Bank Show episode on the band from 1986. The South Bank episode has some advantages over the movie, in that you get to hear from every member of the band. In 1986, all five members of the band were still alive. At the time this new documentary was made, many of the people associated with Warhol and the band have passed away. Even then, the new documentary is superior. Looking the booklet included in the Blu ray case, there are about 27 different interviewees (alive and dead) heard within a runtime of two hours. Some interviewees stand out more than others. The aforementioned Woronov is quite energetic while Modern Lovers frontman Jonathan Richman bares his soul throughout his time in the movie.

As good as this documentary is, there are some downsides. There isn’t a whole lot of time spent talking about the band’s career after their split from Warhol. The music made with John Cale’s replacement Doug Yule is mentioned (the self-titled 1969 album and 1970’s Loaded) but the band’s story stops after Lou Reed leaves the band. While Doug Yule would continue to use the Velvet Underground name until 1973, the rushing through of these events seems to be intentional. As the band continued after the iconic 1967 debut album, they quickly become like any other band from that time period.

Bonus Features

Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground c. 1967. L to R: Nico, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, Lou Reed, John Cale

As to be expected with Criterion, The Velvet Underground Blu-ray comes with several bonuses:

  • Audio commentary from Haynes and editors Affonso Goncalves and Adam Kurnitz
  • Outtakes of the interviews with Jonathan Richman, Mary Woronov and the late Jonas Mekas
  • A Zoom interview with Hayne, John Cale and Maureen Tucker- moderated by writer Jenn Pelly
  • Three complete avant-garde films used in the movie
  • Optional annotations that identify the footage used in the documentary
  • Teaser trailer
  • Essay/review on the documentary from writer Greil Marcus

These are all nice to have in addition to the documentary. While it would’ve been nice to have outtakes from Cale and Tucker, this is still a good amount of content.

Overall Thoughts 
The Velvet Underground Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection is a must-have for any fan of the Velvet Underground. From the documentary itself to the additional features, it just might be the best home video release devoted to the legendary band.

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Aaron ConnBlu Ray Review: The Velvet Underground (2021)- Criterion Collection