The Velvet Underground
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. In his kaleidoscopic documentary The Velvet Underground, Todd Haynes vividly evokes the band’s incandescent world: the creative origins of the twin visionaries Lou Reed and John Cale, Andy Warhol’s fabled Factory, and the explosive tension between pop and the avant-garde that propelled the group and ultimately consumed it. Never-before-seen performances, interviews, rare recordings, and mind-blowing transmissions from the era’s avant-garde cinema scene come together in an ecstatic swirl of sound and image that is to the traditional music documentary what the Velvets were to rock: utterly revolutionary.
Todd Haynes’ 2021 documentary The Velvet Underground receives a new Blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection following its exclusive availability on Apple TV+. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced from a 4K master and is presented on this dual-layer disc in the aspect ratio of around 1.77:1.
The documentary features newly filmed interview footage edited together with archival material in a manner that calls back to avant-garde films of the period depicted, even employing split-screen techniques a good chunk of the time. Most of these archival excerpts come from those same films alongside clips from various television broadcasts and what would be classified as stock footage and home movies. Since all of this material would have been captured originally through multiple mediums over decades, whether it be film, video, or digital (the latter at various resolutions), it can be anticipated that the final results of the presentation will be largely dependent on the inherent quality of that footage and the subsequent quality of any scans of said footage (where appropriate).
I’m happy to say that, on the whole, the film looks excellent, and most of the referenced footage appears to be in exceptional condition. I have to assume most of the film footage comes from pre-existing scans, and it seems the scans themselves are primarily excellent, with some restoration work also being completed. Footage from some of the more notable films like Warhol’s, Jonas Mekas’, Stan Brakhage’s, or even Kenneth Anger’s (to name a few) probably come out looking the best in this regard (Empire seems nice). There are a handful of instances where archival footage appears to have come from standard-definition scans with all of the expected artifacts baked in (lack of detail, jagged edges, some shimmering, etc.), but that clearly can’t be helped. Video footage from VHS sources or kinescope recordings (the process where a film camera films a television monitor of the broadcast) is also " what they are.”
All of this material appears to have been encoded well, with any digital anomalies looking to be inherent to the digital master. The new interview footage can look a little noisy (that I believe was all recorded digitally), but it comes off pretty close to what is on the Apple TV+ stream, and I'd say it's still a bit better here. Black levels look deep and rich, and the archival material even looks excellent. Colors are also bold and wonderfully saturated where footage allows, the newer interviews featuring brilliant pops of color in the background.
Altogether, Criterion’s presentation is excellent, presenting the film and its archival material as best it can.
Criterion offers Dolby Atmos and Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo options for the soundtrack. I only listened to the Dolby Atmos track. I use a 5.1.2 configuration with the Atmos speakers in the front.
Even though the film is a documentary, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone—considering the subject matter—that we get one hell of an aural experience here. Voices of interview subjects are unsurprisingly focused on the fronts, the center channel specifically. The music presented in the film and a handful of sound effects is spread out beautifully through the sound field, immersing the viewer within it.
Music is gorgeously mixed through the channels with excellent, subtle use of the lower frequency where appropriate and notable height from the Atmos speakers. It even has a handful of standout moments, like the opening, where the instrumentations move seamlessly around the viewer. The music sounds crisp and clean, and the dynamic range is extraordinary. It sounds great.
Criterion throws in some interesting content, though it sadly isn’t all it could have been. It does start with a relatively good audio commentary featuring director Todd Haynes and editors Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz. Considering the film’s stylistic characteristics and who is joining on the track (which sounds to have been conducted over a conference call), it shouldn’t be a big surprise to learn that the track focuses mainly on the structure of the film and the editing choices made. One of the main goals for the film, as it sounds here, was to pay tribute to both the band and the avant-garde films of the time (showing how music, film, and all art ultimately mix), leading to the experimental feel of the film and the frequent use of split screens. There is also discussion around dividing the movie into sections and finding the point of focus and “story” for each. The conversation also carries on into the film’s sound mix, color timing, and even finding the appropriate archival material. The conversation can get incredibly technical, so anyone not into that should take heed, but I found it fascinating.
For those not as into that material, they also talk about the project’s background and how it came about, which leads to a discussion about how they worked around COVID restrictions since they were in the process of editing when the restrictions came down. They also talk about the interviews, commenting on how they got some of their subjects on board and then sharing stories about who could be more cautious and who was more open. It ends up being a vibrant and dense track (despite dropping off a bit closer to the end), and I think it’s especially worthwhile for those who may be fascinated by its construction.
Criterion then devotes a little section to interviews, including unused material from the documentary featuring filmmaker Jonas Mekas, actress Mary Woronov and musician Jonathan Richman, running 20, 13, and 16-minutes, respectively. Mekas’ excised material features him talking more about his background before discussing the avant-garde film scene at the time, bringing up other filmmakers and talking about their work, Jack Smith in particular.
Mekas offers a fascinating portrait of the time and place. Still, as interesting as that proves, his bonus footage is nothing compared to the energy found in Richman’s and Woronov’s material. Richman's contribution is terrific as he explains how he first met the band and how they, more-or-less, took him under their wing, recalling stories and tearing up a bit as he continues. Woronov is pretty funny as she recounts the period, including when she first went to Warhol’s Factory and met the artist, before talking about the films that came out of it (Chelsea Girls is only “interesting because it’s different”) and quite a bit about Gerard Malanga. It’s all pretty remarkable, and I can imagine Haynes, Gonçalves, and Kurnitz having a tough time deciding to cut a lot of it out of the film. At least they were able to include it here.
Criterion also includes a 2021 interview (conducted remotely) featuring Haynes, musician John Cale, and Maureen Tucker, moderated by Pitchfork’s editor Jenn Pelly. The 48-minute discussion was done in promotion for the film around the time of the film’s release on Apple’s streaming service. The interview starts with more about the project, its genesis, getting all related parties involved, and how it captures the period. Haynes also mentions how the film was constructed using “all these other artists’ work.” The interview then takes an interesting turn when the discussion shifts to the periods the film depicts, with Tucker and Cale recalling the band, Warhol, the Factory, and more, offering their own first-hand experiences that expand on the film provides. I wasn’t expecting much from this, but it is another exciting addition, all thanks to Tucker’s and Cale’s comments on the work referenced in the film.
This leads us to the most anticipated tease in the supplement listings for this release, “Complete versions of some of the avant-garde films excerpted in the movie,” which sounded very promising considering all the content that appears in the film. Of course, anticipation could only lead to disappointment once it was revealed what films were included. Sadly that disappointment ends up being more significant than even I could have anticipated since the “some” hinted at in the supplement listing turns out to be “two shorts and an excerpt”: Jonas Mekas’ Award Presentation to Andy Warhol (1964, 12-minutes), Piero Heliczer’s, Venus in Furs (1965, 21-minutes) and an 8-minute excerpt from Mekas’ Walden: Diaries, Notes, and Sketches (1964 through 1969, 8-minutes).
The two Mekas films are the more “straightforward” ones if more in concept. Award Presentation is precisely as described, a film covering the presentation of an award being bestowed upon Warhol, in this case by Film Culture, but the award in question ends up being a basket of produce that Warhol shares with everyone around him. As Mekas’ notes explain, Warhol didn’t want to go to an award show, so they came up with the idea of filming him accepting the award, which would then be shown at the event. Mekas also explains he wanted it to replicate the style of Warhol’s films, which meant replicating the 16fps speed of most of them. Since he intended to sync the film with music by The Supremes, he did film at 24fps but then changed the rate during development. Despite the intention of audio being included alongside the film, it is presented silent (I assume due to rights issues). At the very least, a list of songs by the group to play alongside the film has been included: “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Ask Any Girl,” “Baby Love,” and “Run, Run, Run.”
The notes accompanying Walden explain how Mekas would film various things over several years using a Bolex camera, almost as a sort of journal. This footage could range from a few frames to 10-minutes’ worth of material. And that’s essentially what is here, a collection of footage edited together, though sadly with little to no context. This film does offer up sound, presented in Dolby Digital mono.
Venus in Furs (also silent) is the one that features something resembling a narrative while also being the film that has a closer tie to the Velvet Underground: on top of sharing its title with one of the band’s songs, it also features Reed and Cale. As to what it’s about, it’s hard for me to say. Still, I’ll give it a go: it begins at some party before changing focus on a couple of nuns who get caught up in all sorts of acts of "debauchery" in a bathtub before appearing to face a form of punishment for it while scenes from Bride of Frankenstein get spliced in.
It's pretty representative of what was coming out at the time, and as Woronov might say, it’s interesting, with that having more to do with its excellent use of shadow, angles, and editing. The same can be said for the other two, and I’m glad they’re all here, but I must still admit to feeling a bit let down. I wasn’t expecting anything like Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising or anything by Warhol precisely, as I’m sure anything along those lines would have been impossible to get just as a supplement. The latter's work would require another disc, at the very least. Still, considering everything sampled in the feature film, I guess I expected a little more.
I do have to wonder if Criterion did plan to include more but was unable to in the end (rights issues and such). In what I would assume is an effort to make amends, they have added an annotation feature, an optional subtitle track that labels the film’s title, its director, and year as each one appeared, to at least help viewers track down any titles that catch their interest. Some of the television clips even receive annotations. It’s a nice addition that will prove very helpful, and the presentation itself is unobtrusive. It also uses a nice, clean font.
One sequence doesn’t receive an annotation: the 90-second segment where multiple clips from various short films are shown simultaneously onscreen through twelve separate windows. Criterion instead includes a separate excerpt that features this sequence all by itself (still with audio) with annotations for each film within their respective window. I suspect Criterion intended this to be a seamless-branching feature that would have popped up within the feature film itself when the annotation option was turned on but didn’t get the functionality completed in time. At the very least, they include it as a separate supplement for the curious.
That then closes off the disc, outside of the 30-second teaser trailer for the film that appeared on Apple TV+. Criterion also includes a booklet featuring a new essay by Greil Marcus. There isn’t an actual academic angle to be found in the disc supplements, but this essay does fill in the gap a bit, with Marcus commenting on not only the focus and structure of the film but also on the band and period it depicts. I found it to be an excellent read.
Ultimately there is a sting of disappointment around what short films Criterion was able to include (only two complete ones in the end). At least the rest of the content is solid, the extended interviews and the in-depth commentary being excellent additions unto themselves.
Criterion has put together a solid edition for those looking to own the film, even if it doesn’t entirely live up to expectations.