It would be hard to believe that Gus Van Sant hadn’t seen The Velvet Underground and Nico, Andy Warhol’s landmark recording of an hour-long performance by the band, before he made Last Days. Like Van Sant’s movie, one scene of which shows its listless characters rocking out to the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs,” Warhol’s film is in absolute lockstep with the textures of its soundtrack. The bandmates jam in a windowless room of Warhol’s Factory, the camera frenetically panning and zooming over the faces of Lou Reed (pale and zombie-like, but also badass in sunglasses that seem pasted on his face), Nico (who does no actual singing here, though she does manage to attack her guitar strings with a knife), and Nico’s toddler son, a blond boy who slaps at a tambourine from underneath his mother’s feet, looking like he’s either immersed in this world or completely confused by it.
Confusion is not an inappropriate reaction to the Velvet Underground, one of the first bands of its kind to produce artful rock out of a lot of discordant noise. You can feel how much Warhol gets what they’re doing; as the music begins to break down, so do his shots, spinning in all kinds of impromptu directions. It’s a little doodle of an art-house experiment (and, fair warning, there won’t be much of interest here to a non-fan), but it offers genuine insight into one of the most groundbreaking bands of its time and city. When the New York City cops finally interrupt the action to shut down the show, it’s as if a trance has been broken by the reality outside. Warhol struts around trying to piece everything back together, a crew member takes a swig of booze, and Lou Reed takes off those sunglasses, an icon who’s been unmasked. Oh well: The show was great while it lasted.
The Velvet Underground and Nico played on February 21 as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects series. To purchase tickets, click here.