‘Velvet Underground’ Documentary Examines Band’s Rocky, Brief History

The Velvet Underground, a documentary on AppleTV examines the start of the band and its quick collapse. For many people, they may not have heard of them outside a circle of music fans who consider them a better band than say, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, and others who revolutionized the rock and roll sound in the 1960s and 1970s to what it is today.

For anyone who knows about the band, this will come more as a rehash of what they’ve read and heard of for the past 50 years. Formed in 1964 in New York City, the band never had any chart-topping albums even though they released four albums during their initial formation. Squeeze is not considered canon for reasons not discussed in the documentary but everyone who is a fan should know.

If you’re expecting some spilled tea to be thrown at Doug Yule, the musician who came on board to replace John Cale and eventually became the male version of Yoko Ono in some fans’ opinions, look elsewhere. Cale offers little to be said about Yule, whose voice appears in interviews.

Part of the problem with this is the one person we want to hear has been deceased for almost 10 years. Lou Reed, the famed musician, who formed the band with Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison and Angus MacLie, passed away in 2013. His sister, Merrill Reed Weiner, speaks in place of him. But it adds a more of Citizen Kane style viewpoint of Reed. Cale and Maureen “Moe” Tucker, who replaced MacLise, give interviews about what it was like in the band.

The question of if Reed was a control freak in the band is a no-brainer. While the band seemed to sound better when Cale was a member, the music afterwards seem to have a different tone. Personally, Reed and Cale were both too great in their own rights to give each other an inch in their form. That was the problem from the start. Even though it produced two of the greatest albums of all time, The Velvet Underground and Nico and White Light/White Heat, there’s only so much competition that can be had between two people before something happens.

What happened was after the release of White Light/White Heat, Reed got Morrison and Tucker to help him kick Cale out and bring in Yule, which was the beginning of the end. When Squeeze was released, neither Reed nor Morrison were still in the band. It is considered an “in name only” album and I haven’t heard it.

The story of the Velvet Underground is a common one with many musical groups but with a twist. They start from humble beginnings and reach the top but corruption and greed takes over. Ironically, they never reached the top. The documentary explores how they were disliked by a lot of people. Tucker, who came to light in 2009 as an anti-Obama Tea Party supporter expresses her dislike for the hippie counterculture movement of the 1960s, but it’s well known The Velvet Underground didn’t really care for it back then.

I feel Todd Haynes, who produced and directed the documentary, wanted to make it as apolitical as possible, which might explains why Tucker has less screen time than one might think. The focus is on those years in the 1960s as the band’s first album was produced by Andy Warhol with Nico on vocals, even though the band didn’t like her involvement. They were part of the New York music scene which obviously contrasted with the California music scene. Ironically, they had the same fans that The Grateful Dead had and even both bands went by The Warlocks before having to change their names.

Haynes doesn’t focus on the band’s 1993 reuniting for a tour and producing a double-live album or their 1996 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, maybe not to pick at wounds that are still healing as Yule wasn’t allowed to tour nor was he one of the recipients at the 1996 event. You kind of get the feel Yule was just a permanent replacement musician that would often play with bands but was never part of one.

One fascinating interviewee featured is Jonathan Richman, who founded the Modern Lovers, but is more well known to many people for his role in the comedy There’s Something About Mary where he functioned as a guitar-playing one-man chorus for the events in the movie. Richman talks about as a teenager he was often hanging around the band and was taken under the wing by Morrison and even opened for the band. Morrison, who died in 1995, is spoken more favorably than Reed.

Reed would leave the band before the release of their fourth album, Loaded, which of all the Reed albums seems to be the one that sounds too commercial. Their third album titled The Velvet Underground is probably their most poetic, which is why many of the songs aren’t the most memorable.

White Light/White Heat is their loudest and probably one of the loudest albums ever produced. The Velvet Underground and Nico often referred to as The Banana Album for the drawing of a yellow banana by Warhol on the cover is probably their most avant-garde which was part of the reason for Cale’s dismissal. I’ve always thought Reed himself was avant-garde and like I mentioned earlier was competing with Cale.

For many bands, the band was influential in creating the punk rock sound to some extent and most definitely the alternative rock sound that R.E.M. and The B-52s among others would expand on. Macaulay Culkin was in The Pizza Underground, a band parodying the band’s songs by replacing lyrics with references to pizza.

The documentary will probably only appeal to fans of the band. It might introduce some new fans, but on the general masses, I think they’ll skip it. And the band members, both living and dead, would probably appreciate that.

What do you think? Please comment.

Published by bobbyzane420

I'm an award winning journalist and photographer who covered dozens of homicides and even interviewed President Jimmy Carter on multiple occasions. A back injury in 2011 and other family medical emergencies sidelined my journalism career. But now, I'm doing my own thing, focusing on movies (one of my favorite topics), current events and politics (another favorite topic) and just anything I feel needs to be posted. Thank you for reading.

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