The Velvet Underground Movie


It’s not for everybody.

It’s about the money. And the jobs.

Stretching after my hike last night, not wanting to let a moment be wasted, also striving for the stimulation the internet affords, I read the “Washington Post” review of Fiona Hill’s new book:

“The rare Trump insider memoir that doesn’t obsess over Trump – In ‘There Is Nothing for You Here” Fiona Hill warns of the dangers to democracy and opportunity in America and beyond”:

I highly recommend it. It’s more important than anything I’m going to write here. Left or right, it doesn’t matter.

“The preamble has become the point. Hill links her experiences in England, Russia and the United States to argue that the countries suffer a similar malady: a steady postindustrial decline that stokes cultural despair and leads to a polarized politics in which populists thrive. ‘From the late 1980s to the 2020s, in the heartlands of both Russia and the United States, I saw grim reflections of the decline of my hometown,’ she writes. ‘As the sense of hopelessness spreads, so does the anger — and the potential for people’s fears and frustrations to explode into the political arena.'”

To quote James McMurtry, you can’t make it here anymore. There is no lifetime employment, and you can’t make it on minimum wage. Meanwhile, there’s an entire sector of people who are flourishing, not only the billionaires but the college graduates living in cities who complain they can’t make it on $400,000 a year. That’s what Biden’s tax bill considers rich. And if you’ve got to pay for metropolitan housing, and private school and vacations, never mind the accoutrements denoting your class, the clothing and the cars, the elite say 400k isn’t nearly enough. Especially those on the right, the editorials in the “Wall Street Journal” have been screaming! On the other side of the equation we’ve got people who can’t make ends meet, who delay health care, never mind dental care, who live multiple generations per dwelling, who turn to drugs to get them through. As for lifting them up… Not if it costs the elite a single penny. After all, the elite’s efforts trickle down and enhance the pocketbooks of the poor, right?

But that’s today, when politics are everything. If you tell someone to stick to the script, to stay in their lane, the joke is on you, because this nation’s political situation is the most critical thing happening today, the future literally hangs in the balance, if you just want to party on…you may not like the consequences.

But it wasn’t like this in the sixties.

I know, the sixties are seen as an era of tumult…of riots, protests against the Vietnam War. And that’s all true, but there was more. There was a huge cultural explosion, a testing of limits, invention, primarily because there was so much money, primarily because there were no billionaires, and if you had a million dollars you were rich, your goals were not stratospheric.

So mothers didn’t have to work outside the home. Some chose to, some needed to, but today both parents have to work for the family to get by. Of course there are exceptions, but they don’t disqualify the rule.

So suddenly, starting in the fifties and evolving into the sixties, there was freedom to explore, to make your leisure time more than drinking and watching TV.

College was cheap. University was not about job preparation, our parents thought of our futures, but did not dictate them, they couldn’t get away with it. No, young people were on a journey of their own creation. And nothing would stop them. And this journey gained adherents and as a result, the sixties became the last cultural peak in this nation.

Of course they still make music today. TV and films. But it was different back then. Now, it’s all about the dollar, everybody shaves off their edges for the buck. And image supersedes art. It’s about you, the cult of personality, more than what you create. It’s the antithesis of Andy Warhol and its factory.


That was Warhol’s breakthrough, to put the cash up front, previously taboo in the art world. And to continue the question of the century, as in what is art? You had not only Warhol, but before him the cubists and the abstract impressionists and then the minimalists… Being able to draw was no longer a prerequisite to a career as an artist, and being more than proficient at your instrument was no longer a prerequisite to playing music.

But that didn’t mean you’d become a star.

And there are a ton of stars in this film.

Like Mary Woronov. A Factory hanger-on who graduated to mainstream film roles as the decades wore on.

And Paul Morrissey. That was a thing back then, going to the cinema to see Andy Warhol films, which by the turn of the decade, from the sixties to the seventies, were really made by Morrissey.

Seems so quaint today. Making a journey to the theatre, sitting in a darkened room and seeing a film and…at best you could go home and talk about it. You couldn’t post on social media. The experience of going was everything, the message was on screen, the audience was not the star, as it is at so many concerts these days.

And these films were influential, BECAUSE THEY TESTED LIMITS!

You went because you had to, irrelevant of the reviews. What were the odds the critics would get it anyway? These films were influential. As Lou Reed himself began.

He didn’t want to be an accountant like his father. He wanted to be a rich and famous rock star. That’s made clear in this movie, from the very beginning, that was his goal. But it was a long hard road getting there.

First he had Warhol.

This film traces the trip from Long Island to the Factory.

And if you watch this film through twenty first century eyes you’ll keep asking yourself how all these people were getting by, paying their bills, but living was cheap back then! And you didn’t have to enter a career right after college for fear of forever being left behind.

Reed has a vision. But Manhattan is full of artists. They find each other. He gets hooked up with John Cale. Eventually they meet Warhol, who says yes to everything, that’s why people wanted to hang out with him at the Factory, and a bond is established. But in order to make it all work, Andy has to design the album cover and Nico has to front the band. Talk about being expedient, otherwise the Velvet Underground never would have happened.

So what you’ve got here is a slew of artists, with only Warhol having any real purchase on the mainstream culture, and at this point mostly in the metropolis, pursuing their passion as artists, filmmakers, painters, musicians… It was a hotbed of creativity.

And then there’s a stage show at the Dom. The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Doesn’t that say it all? No one names their events like this anymore. Hell, most have their sponsor in the moniker! And they were events, immersive, in the dark, with performances and lights and being there opened your mind. Assuming you were there. And almost all people were not. But word started to spread. You read about it. There was a pull to the city, to become part of this.

Watching this film I wondered why in hell I went to college in Vermont. That wasn’t my place. I came to Los Angeles and found people exactly like myself, in Vermont there were none.

It’s different today. As a result of the internet you can be anywhere and play. But playing is not the same, because of that damn money factor. And there are so many messages odds are yours won’t be heard.

Like the Velvet Underground. Today their music would be unknown. Anybody can make a record. But when their albums were released we saw them in the museum known as the record store, everybody was aware of them, even if they never heard them. And the truth is where I lived, there was always someone who owned one, who insisted you sit down and listen to “Sister Ray” or another cut. You sat there and listened, did nothing else simultaneously, can you imagine?

Probably not, unless you lived through it.

So if you read the review of Fiona Hill’s book above you can picture the journey from there to here. Yet watching this film I can’t believe I was really alive and aware in the sixties. Yes, I was going to high school, fifty miles from New York City, the light shined that far, it was part of my everyday world. I can’t imagine that today. If for no other reason than nothing is universal, nothing has that amount of mindshare, even though the surviving institutions keep telling us they do.

Like movies. What a joke. Superhero events for the brain dead. As for art films, if you went to the theatre to see this, you’re probably over seventy, at least sixty, you’re inured to the old rituals. No, this movie is readily accessible on Apple TV+. That’s how we consume culture these days, at our fingertips. Put any impediment in its way and people don’t bother.

So watching this movie you’ll see what the early to mid-sixties were like. It’ll be a revelation if you weren’t alive back then, but you probably won’t even be interested. Yes, you know “Walk on the Wild Side,” but that’s enough for you.

And many people alive back then were clueless.

And then there were the artists, those who were a little offbeat, who were not accepted anywhere else, for which this movie and the Velvet Underground are manna from heaven. Hell, one of the best parts of the film is when Jonathan Richman testifies. When everybody else was getting noisier, Richman fired his band and got quieter. He continued to experiment in the seventies when everybody else was playing by the rules.

And in the eighties you had to be beautiful to be on MTV.

And then Napster came along and blew everything apart and if you were awake and aware beforehand you might still believe the music business is in turmoil. But it’s not. Those days are over. Now it’s no longer about the platforms, but the music itself. And that’s much harder to do. Everyone has an opinion on file-trading and streaming, but almost no one can create a hit record, even though seemingly every young person thinks they can.

But their heads are in the wrong place. Sure, after the Beatles broke we all bought guitars and formed bands, we had dreams but they were quick to be shattered, we realized we were not good enough. Some were, but their number was exceedingly small. Today’s generation believes marketing exceeds music, that if they make enough noise they must break through, not knowing it’s about one note, pure and easy, as Pete Townshend sang.

So most people don’t want to see a movie like this. About what happened fifty-odd years ago. Shot in an artistic fashion. Yes, the movie doesn’t even look like a tentpole blockbuster. There’s split screen and talking heads and…it’s an art film. Which if you’re a boomer you’ll remember, if you’re not, you probably won’t.

And art films were not solely about the ride, they were supposed to deliver more, you were supposed to leave the theatre thinking.

If you make it through the Velvet Underground movie you’ll be thinking. You’ll be thinking during it. You may even go back to it. It’s not here today, gone tomorrow, it sticks to you. Kind of like “Don’t Look Back,” a film that was dead on arrival that has since become legendary. Do I think the Velvet Underground movie will have the same impact down the road? Not quite as much, but it’s a unique document of an era, it’s far from me-too.

That’s one of its best qualities. It’s not a traditional rock doc. It’s not pure hagiography. It leans towards that at the end, deifying Lou Reed, but then the credits start to roll.

So will this movie make you love the Velvet Underground if you don’t already?

I highly doubt it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from it. It’s those outside who do it differently who change the world.

Then again, wasn’t changing the world a sixties thing?

Unfortunately so.

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