Who hasn’t gone into their local record shop and seen The Velvet Underground’s debut album “The Velvet Underground and Nico” on display? It’s an iconic album cover that I could not have told you was The Velvet Underground, and while The Velvet Underground was a band made of more than simply Lou Reed, their self-titled documentary focuses on one of the most distinct voices in rock history, and for good reason. There is a significant amount of depth in this 2-hour documentary, and be prepared to talk a “Walk on the Wild Side.”
I, for one, was not familiar with Lou Reed’s music outside of his biggest hits, “Satellite of Love” and “Walk on the Wild Side,” and in all fairness, it was U2’s covers and snippets of these songs in live performances that introduced me to Reed’s music. But like many other great leading men in a band (including U2’s Bono), there is a level of fake confidence that you need in order to get you (and your band) where you want to be. The documentary brings in fellow band members and relatives to the late singer who are able to uncover a new side of Reed. It’s easy to wonder how successful the band would have been without Reed. They followed his lead both musically and outside of the studio. Even as a teen, Reed was getting gigs, but he wanted to play clubs because they have “cool people.”
Of course, with any rock band that started in the 1960s, other successful bands were sure to impact your music. The Beatles are mentioned once, but a fellow legend such as David Bowie is shown to have helped produce an album for The Velvet Underground. Weirdly enough, The Velvet Underground was an anti-hippie band in the time where hippies were everywhere. The disdain that comes from the mouths of band members when talking about that time is
The concept of improvisation is brought up a couple of times in the documentary. I believe it was John Cale who said that improv is a way of escaping trouble; or something to that effect. The band is shown to have been able to get through roadblocks, such as when Reed was once unable to play guitar for a show, and one of the band members told him that he wasn’t a good guitarist anyways, and suggested to just sing.
But above all else, the coolest part of “The Velvet Underground” was the behind-the-scenes insight of the song “Venus in Furs.” Seeing Reed play around with an ostrich guitar (one-note for all six strings) and Cale using the electric viola was like the scene of Queen making “Bohemian Rhapsody” in their biopic. One of the band members mentioned that they didn’t record stuff that they couldn’t go out on stage and play, which makes it all the more impressive that “Venus in Furs” only has the four band members on the personnel list. The band also played around with guitar effects, and the usage of the “fuzz” effect is something to behold.
Coming out of “The Velvet Underground,” I can say that I know a lot more about the band than coming in. At least I can put a face to that album cover with a banana on it (Andy Warhol is to thank for the iconic cover image). While I’m sure there is a lot that this documentary left out or brushed over, a 2-hour documentary like “The Velvet Underground” felt satisfying enough as is and covered all bases for a newbie to their music. It’s not as abstract or hypnotizing as the band’s actual music but is a must-watch for a classic rock fan.
“The Velvet Underground” will play in limited theatres beginning October 15 and streaming on Apple TV+.