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The Velvet Underground review – avant-garde cool brought back to life

·1-min read

How do you make a rock doc without any concert footage? In his electric portrait of the Velvet Underground, the film-maker Todd Haynes elegantly sidesteps this conundrum. Unable to rely on archive material of their gigs, he turns instead to the early films of Andy Warhol, their friend, publicist and one-time manager.

The band came out of New York City’s avant-garde art scene in 1964 , so Haynes frames the film like a downtown gallery installation. A slideshow of still photographs runs in split screen alongside new interviews and clips from this period in experimental American cinema (the format is a homage to Warhol’s 1966 film Chelsea Girls). Warhol’s screen tests of founding members Lou Reed and John Cale, staring into the lens, play out in full. His black-and-white chiaroscuro closeups capture the Velvets’ confrontational cool.

In his dramas Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There and Carol, Haynes imagined the sexual escapades of a Bowie-esque pop star, cast Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan, and queered the melodrama genre. He’s the perfect practitioner, then, to tell the story of a band who also defined themselves in opposition to the mainstream. A more conventional director might have chosen to focus on their most famous member, Reed, but Haynes smartly structures the film as a group show, giving space to the women in the ensemble. Singer Nico is thankfully presented as more than a femme fatale, while drummer Maureen “Moe” Tucker embodies the band’s no-nonsense, New York attitude with her withering comments about “flower power”.

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