The Velvet Underground have been mentioned in so many documentaries, whether for their association with Andy Warhol or their status as progenitors of the punk movement, that it seems like their story has been told a thousand times. In reality, there are no commercially available feature-length documentaries on the band, despite their being widely regarded as one of the most original and influential musical groups of the rock era. Finally filling that void is the band’s entry in the Under Review rockumentary series. Billed as “an independent critical analysis”, the new DVD boasts rare, unseen footage and new interviews with former VU members Maureen Tucker and Doug Yule and Warhol Factory mainstay Billy Name.
The Velvets’ story is an intriguing one, bringing together the disparate worlds of high and low culture, and peripherally involving such colorful characters as LaMonte Young, Warhol, Nico, Michelangelo Antonioni, Betsey Johnson, and Ahmet Ertegun. However, Under Review chooses not to tell the Velvets’ story in much detail, instead focusing on the opinions of interviewees including respected music critic Robert Christgau, From the Velvets to the Voidoids author Clinton Heylin, Dean Wareham, whose former band Luna opened for the Velvets on their 1993 reunion tour, and writer/musician Joe Harvard. Few of their comments are particularly insightful and will sound overblown to anyone who isn’t already a huge fan of the band’s music. Heylin, for example, calls “Venus in Furs” the most important pop song since “Heartbreak Hotel” and claims there was no such thing as rock music until the Velvets’ first album appeared. The most interesting insights come from the interviewees who were there when the music was made. Norman Dolph, who engineered the Velvets’ first professional recordings (most of which ended up on their debut album) and unsuccessfully tried to get the band a deal with Columbia Records, provides details about the recording sessions while Steve Nelson, manager of the Boston Tea Party, where the Velvets played many gigs, provides an interesting portrait of them as a “dance band” entertaining a largely working-class crowd in Boston — quite a different scene from the hip art crowd that frequented their gigs back home in New York.
The documentary also includes vintage footage of the Velvets in action by Warhol, Ronald Nameth, Rosalind Stevenson, and Claude Ventura; there are also some performance clips from their reunion shot by Declan Lowrey. Thankfully, there’s also a lot of music, although most of it comes from the band’s studio albums, which don’t tell the whole story. The numerous studio outtakes and live recordings that surfaced after the band’s demise prove how varied their influences were and show that they worked from a stunningly diverse musical palette. This diversity is only hinted at in Under Review; for instance, Lou Reed’s love of doo wop is mentioned, but it’s never shown how this influence worked its way into the Velvets’ music (and it occasionally did). There are other holes in the story as well. For instance, there is no mention of the Velvets’ short-lived but influential original drummer, Angus MacLise, and the band’s disintegration is covered so quickly that it sounds as though Maureen Tucker and Sterling Morrison participated in Squeeze, the final release credited to the Velvets, although Doug Yule was the only holdover from the previous version of the band. A few factual errors pop up as well: Nico, who sang with the group for a time at Warhol’s suggestion, is referred to as Hungarian (she was German), and her first single is said to be Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It with Mine” (it was Gordon Lightfoot’s “I’m Not Sayin'”).
Most unfortunate is Lou Reed’s and John Cale’s nonparticipation. Their comments in the generous, David Fricke-penned book that accompanied the 1995 box set Peel Slowly and See were witty and insightful and gave a warm humanity to a band that is too often pigeonholed as New York sleaze incarnate. Doug Yule and the ever-cool Maureen Tucker have to do the job here, providing first-hand accounts of life in the VU. It is Tucker, who spent several post-Velvets years raising her kids in Georgia while working at Wal-Mart, who gets the last word. Yes, she says, it would have been nice if the Velvet Underground had made 10 million dollars, but it’s even better that they made music that still influences people today. For that reason alone, Under Review is worthwhile, as it pays tribute to the band’s staying power even if it isn’t an essential release.