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Laramie Movie Scope:
The Velvet Underground

Portrait of an experimental band

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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January 21, 2022 – I remember years ago arguing with my old friend Larry Sims about The Velvet Underground, particularly its signature song, “Heroin.” I liked the song, but he described it as “a garbage can of sound,” and he was not alone in that sentiment.

The Velvet Underground, a prominent feature of the Andy Warhol's New York experimental multimedia scene in the 1960s, was not a big commercial success at first, and didn't gain widespread acceptance until years later. This documentary film focuses on the band, and its members, to a fault. It doesn't really delve deeply into the question about why anyone should care about their music almost 60 years later.

Lou Reed (1942-2013) the leader of the band, achieved his greatest success two years after leaving The Velvet Underground, with his signature hit, “Walk on the Wild Side,” produced by David Bowie. The absence of this song is a curious omission from the film. While the film gives few details about what happened to the members of the band after the band broke up, plenty is given to what they did prior to founding the band in 1964.

The only two musicians I had heard of in the Velvet Underground were Lou Reed and John Cale, along with the singer Nico (1938-1988) who was with the band a short time, singing lead vocals on three songs (and backing vocals on one other song) on the band's 1967 debut album, “The Velvet Underground and Nico.” Nico (real name Christa Päffgen) has been the subject of several movies, including one I reviewed four years ago, “Nico, 1988”). Lou Reed had a very successful solo career later on. John Cale, who is very well known for his avant-garde music, appears in this film as one of the surviving founding members of The Velvet Underground band.

Another surviving member of the band who appears in the film is Maureen Ann “Moe” Tucker, the band's second drummer, replacing Angus MacLise in 1965. Guitarist Sterling Morrison (1942-1995) is given considerable attention in this film as one of the original founding members of The Velvet Underground.

The film spends some time on the backgrounds of Reed, Cale and Morrison, who influenced them, and how they came together to form the band in 1964. The film also explores how their personality clashes and musical differences finally caused the band to split apart. The wild experimental music scene of New York in the early 1960s, and how those other New York-based musicians influenced Cale (born and raised in Wales) is explored in some detail in this film.

The film not only contains footage of some of the band's performances, including those from Warhol's “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” tour (1966-67) but an enormous number of film snippets from the Andy Warhol Museum, and a myriad of other sources. Many of these film clips are edited together in a manner similar to Warhol's psychedelic style.

I found the exploration of the New York experimental music scene quite interesting. Also, the valuable insights of the surviving members of the band, along with others who were involved in the music and film scene of that era, helped me understand the dynamics of the band.

The film depicts Lou Reed as a difficult customer with lofty goals, exacting standards, and great ambition. He wanted to be a rock star, and became one through sheer will, and a gift for poetry. Reed is depicted as the band's founder and leader. He was also the driving force in breaking up the band. The film argues that The Velvet Underground did not live up to Reed's expectations. The film doesn't really delve into what Reed might have thought about the band's legacy much later in his life.

I think this film is aimed primarily at people who are already fans of The Velvet Underground, and who are already aware of the band's influence on music and the larger society. I was not that big of a fan of the band, and this movie doesn't really explain why I should be, outside of the selection of music samples heard in it. This film is like a love letter to the band, but is a letter that really isn't addressed to me.

What the film does well is to describe the band, the environment in which it was formed, and the cultural milieu of that time and place. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff (no extra charges apply). I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2022 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)

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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at dalek three zero one nine at gmail dot com [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]