The Velvet Underground Found Their Scribe in Todd Haynes

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There are infinite ways to tell the story of The Velvet Underground. An infinite amount of people have been profoundly influenced and changed by the band, with every individual latching onto different elements from specific moments to the point where the famous Brian Eno quote about the band somehow understates their impact. So if you asked 10,000 filmmakers to capture The Velvet Underground and what makes them personally influential to them, you would be given 10,000 vastly different films. Luckily for us, Todd Haynes is a perfect scribe for the group in his debut documentary film.

In a similar way to Haynes’ extraordinary 2007 Bob Dylan film I’m Not There, many may be left wanting by this documentary if you come to it with your own expectations for what this film should be. If you are deeply versed in The Velvet Underground’s story and want this film to chronicle their entire arc from 1964 to their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1996, you will not find that here. If you are seeking a film stacked with unearthed concert footage, unfortunately you will be left disappointed (this would have taken the film to a truly transcendent place but alas, that footage barely exists). If you have only vaguely heard of the band, of the names Lou Reed and John Cale, and only recognise the Warhol banana through t-shirts and couch cushions, I genuinely don’t know how you would feel about this film but you may be left beguiled and full of questions, while also hopefully gaining an understanding of the reverie so many have for the group.

Too often music documentaries focus on either deconstructing the art to the point of banality, or mythologising to the point of absurdity. What makes Haynes’ film so refreshing is his ability to deconstruct individual moments of the Velvets history without removing the artistic mystery that made the band grow as a source of creative inspiration for generations, whilst never overstating that cultural weight. An entire documentary could be made about the bands that owe their entire musical identity to The Velvet Underground – or even just a single song – but that would not create a compelling film and is not something a filmmaker of Haynes’ calibre would create when given the opportunity. Instead, Haynes focuses on the birth of the band and the environment they were sculpting and being sculpted by.

By focusing on the polarity of John Cale’s avant-garde tendencies and Lou Reed’s lyricism and pop sensibilities, Haynes captures what makes the band’s early years so powerful and unique, while never shying away from how those tensions would inevitably divide the group. Haynes further illustrates this polarity through the film’s style. Heavily influenced from Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s split-screen feature Chelsea Girls (1966), the documentary constantly shows us two images, sometimes to pair with the narrative of the sequence, but often in stark contrast, made most potent whenever Haynes shows Cale and Reed’s profile footage from The Factory side-by-side.

John Cale (left) and Lou Reed (right) in The Velvet Underground

A master of period filmmaking, Haynes captures the early 60s art moment in New York beautifully. By focusing on the visual and aesthetic elements of the film, Haynes has created a truly visceral project that is rare in documentary filmmaking, especially in the genre of retrospective music documentary. Haynes has curated a filmography out of deconstructing genres and movements from Douglas Sirk to Bob Dylan, while also being able to freeze a moment in amber. One would think a filmmaker that constantly goes back to previous era would fill their films with nostalgia and sentimentality, but what makes Haynes’ films so poignant and fresh is his ability to articulate the universality of stories. The magic trick Haynes is constantly able to pull off in his films is the ability to interrogate a moment heavily while never devaluing it. In a similar way he critiqued while also showing deep admiration to Douglas Sirk in Far From Heaven (2002), Haynes takes a similar approach to the 60s New York art movement, centred around Warhol’s Factory.

An absolute treat of the documentary is the interview with American avant-garde icon Jonas Mekas, who died in early 2019 which had to have been not long after the interview was conducted. Haynes pays great respect throughout the film to the underground and avant-garde movements that inspired him, as well as the icons that inspired Warhol and Cale like Mekas, John Cage, and La Monte Young. You can feel the deep connection Haynes has to this movement and how important it was to the establishment of The Velvet Underground and how it contrasted so heavily with Reed’s pop leanings that created the tension of the band. Tension that ignited into extraordinary music that ultimately drove Cale and Reed apart.

The spectre of Lou Reed is palpable through the documentary which culminates in a piece of fascinating final footage that shows even after everything they went through, he was still close to Cale. The documentary does not aim to dispel the mysteries of the band – an impossible task given the lack of concert footage as well as the ability to interview Reed for the film. A seemingly unknowable person, it is apparent throughout the film that people were hesitant to speak for Lou, making the audience constantly ponder what Reed would think about each moment in their storied history.

The visual splendour coupled with The Velvet’s music makes for a mesmerising experience that would’ve been greatly improved by being viewed in a theatre. The sequences and images of the band playing live at Warhol’s Studio 54 should be projected onto walls, and the slow crawl of the opening sequence set to “Venus in Furs” should be seen and heard in a loud, dark room. It is a sad reality that this opportunity is unavailable to us due to its production through Apple, but at least we got this treasure of a film at all.

The Velvet Underground is on Apple TV+ now.

Black Cinema Gains a New Voice Via the Summer of Soul

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

African-American directors have long used their powerful voice to admonish racism and injustice – think John Singleton, Ava DuVarney, Jordan Peele and of course, Spike Lee with his signature Joints. Newly ranking among this cohort is Ahmir Thompson, utilising long-lost footage of a monumental event to concoct a narrative of equal distinction.

In 1969, amidst a Climate of Hate in the United States, the New York neighbourhood of Harlem played host to a series of outdoor concerts, featuring musicians both prominent and rising, locally famed and internationally recognised. The free events, promoted as the Harlem Cultural Festival, took place over successive weekends during the Summer, their family-friendly façade masking an ulterior intention – as interviewee Darryl Lewis bluntly puts it, “to keep Black folks from burning up the city in ’69.”

Despite being attended by as many as 300,000 people, and earning the public support of New York City’s white, Republican Mayor, John Lindsay, press coverage of the Festival was limited, and a proposed film documenting the performances was shelved after failing to garner an investor. Multiple reels of video and audio that had been recorded for a documentary instead lay dormant in storage, unseen by the public eye for over five decades – hence this picture’s, full title, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021).

Director Thompson, a.k.a. Questlove, is best known for his work in the realm of music, and that melodic expertise is more than apparent in his selection of performances that are showcased within the feature. Highlights include a young Stevie Wonder’s masterful playing of the drums and keyboards; Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples’ powerful duet of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”; Ray Barretto on bongos trading fours with his double bassist; Sonny Sharrock wildly shredding on the electric guitar; Nina Simone’s eloquent prose in “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”; and Sly and the Family Stone’s call-and-response with the Harlem crowd.

Just about every performance that’s seen in Summer of Soul is reminisced about through present-day interviews with Festival attendees, social commentators, the musicians themselves, and a handful of celebrities with the most tenuous of links to the Festival – comedian Chris Rock being such an example. Most of the input these subjects provide amounts to little more than soundbites, but their statements are nonetheless insightful, and the fondness with which they recollect events appears earnest and genuine.

Stevie Wonder performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival, as seen in Summer of Soul

Not content with directing a concert film, Thompson also shapes Summer of Soul as a historical document of the African-American experience. Each performance is seceded by a brief interlude that explains, through archival footage and clips from the abovementioned interviews, the happenings in Harlem, the United States and the world that led to the Cultural Festival, demonstrating its place in a broader cultural movement of “Neo-Super Blackness” (as interviewee Greg Tate aptly describes it) and how it assisted in propelling it.

Some viewers might be baffled at this suggestion, given the lack of prominence afforded to the concerts until now. Summer of Soul hypothesises that an overshadowing of the Festival by two other events is the cause of that, said events being the Moon Landing in July of the same year, and the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, which took place the very same weekend that Nina Simone and B.B. King performed in Mount Morris Park. (In a delicious case of irony, the film treats both of these cultural touchstones with indifference.)

One gripe, admittedly minor, to be had with Summer of Soul is the varying quality of the concert footage. Video and audio of the event has been digitally restored from the original tapes, most of which looks and sounds pretty crisp; yet there are occasions when markings and damage to the recordings are rather visible, detracting from the experience. What’s needed is some further enhancement, or cleaning of the original imagery in order to truly, fully do the Harlem Cultural Festival justice.

Ahmir Thompson’s directorial debut is more than the recreation of a significant moment in history – it’s a stirring celebration of Black culture with a central message that’s just as relevant today. Possessing a voice that’s as loud and proud as the singers featured within, Summer of Soul is a documentary that ought to be seen and heard by all.

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is now streaming on Disney+.

Australia’s Irish Film Festival Goes Virtual For 2021

The Republic of Ireland typically isn’t a country associated with cinema – aside from Alan Parker’s The Commitments or the works of John Carney, it’s difficult to think of a film that hails from the land of St. Patrick. Yet in recent years, the Republic’s output of productions has grown exponentially, priming themselves as a key player in the industry.

Nowhere is this fact more evident than in the line-up for the annual Irish Film Festival, set to begin this week. Years past have seen the event grace theatres in Sydney and Melbourne; but with both cities currently subject to lockdowns, the Festival will heading online in 2021, allowing cinephiles across Australia to see the very best movies that Ireland has to offer.

Headlining the virtual festival is the Academy Award-nominated Wolfwalkers, a feature-length animation from Cartoon Saloon – the studio behind critically-acclaimed films such as The Secret of Kells (2009) and The Breadwinner (2017). Having already been screened overseas, the picture currently has a near-perfect 99% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, placing it among the highest-rated movies on the site. It’s an exciting prospect, not least because Wolfwalkers has been an exclusive title on Apple TV+ for some months now, making this is a rare opportunity to view the feature outside of its usual confines.

A still from Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers, featuring protagonist Robin and her wolf spirit

Wolfwalkers is something of an outlier at the festival, since most of the films being shown are low-budget features making their Australian debut. The most intriguing of these debuts is Cathy Brady’s Wildfire, which sees a missing woman return to Northern Ireland and reunite with her sister, hinting at a Dragon Tattoo-esque storyline. Similar themes permeate the crime thriller Broken Law, a narrative about two brothers – one a cop, the other an ex-crim – trying to escape their past.

Those looking for a more humorous proposition may enjoy The Bright Side, focusing on a stand-up comedienne who tackles her cancer diagnosis with plenty of dry wit; or the Festival’s other dark comedy offering, Deadly Cuts, telling of a group of hair-stylists who dare to challenge the gangs of Dublin. The two other comedies playing at the Festival are Boys From County Hell, an Irish take on Shaun of the Dead, and A Bump Along the Way, following a middle-aged woman who falls pregnant after a one-night-stand.

For the musically inclined, there’s three music documentaries to whet the palette, including one filmed here in Australia: Áine Tyrrell – Irish Troubadour, charting the subject’s journey from domestic violence victim to renowned folk singer. Phil Lynott: Songs For While I’m Away documents the largely-unknown life of Thin Lizzy’s front-man and Ireland’s greatest rock star, while Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan looks at the pioneer of Celtic punk.

Phil Lynott, the lead singer of Irish rock band Thin Lizzy and subject of Phil Lynott: Songs For When I’m Away

The musical theme continues with the Gabriel Byrne-led Death of a Ladies’ Man, a dramedy inspired by, and paired to, the songs of Leonard Cohen. And for lovers of all things sports, there’s a documentary examining the psyche of Jack Charlton, an enigmatic soccer player from England who became coach of Ireland’s national team, aptly titled Finding Jack Charlton.

Although the selection of twelve films is meagre when compared to its contemporaries, this year’s Irish Film Festival is definitely not short on quality – if this is just a taste of what Ireland has to offer, there’s every chance of the nation becoming a cinematic powerhouse in just a few short years. And while nothing beats the theatrical experience, being able to watch each of these films from your couch, at your own convenience, comes a pretty close second. In short, this Festival is definitely worth checking out.

The Irish Film Festival begins this Friday, September 3rd. For more information, head to the Festival’s official website.

MIFF ’21: Notturno Forces us to Face the Realities of War that we Often Ignore

Rating: 3 out of 5.

With colonisation comes a struggle for independence and identity; oftentimes war ensues, and people are either left with less than they had before, or nothing at all. Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary, Notturno (2020), paints a perplexing picture of what life after war looks like. The Oscar-nominated documentarian lets his camera do the talking as he traverses the war ravaged Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, and Lebanon over the course of three years. The result is a film that captures the aftermath of war ravaged lands, and the people left to endure the mess made by others.

Rosi is no stranger to focusing on people facing hardship as a result of injustice and corrupt systems. His Golden Bear winning film, Fire at Sea (2016), explores the European migrant crisis and some of the people at the centre of the migrant landings at Sicilian island, Lampedusa. While Notturno isn’t as specific in its focus as Fire at Sea, it serves to remind audiences of the realities that people on the other side are living.

In Notturno, Rosi captures the sprawling and almost barren wasteland’s of some of the aforementioned Middle-Eastern countries, and his cinematography is comprised of an array of wide shots that give the land itself an added layer of complexity. There is almost no life in Rosi’s shots, with the environment seeming akin to that of Frank Herbert’s fictional Arrakis (or Dune) — there is a desert-like openness, structures are left behind from ISIS raids, and minimal life exists save for birds that are hunted. The purpose here is to reinforce what many of the people in the film already voice — these people’s homeland has been taken from them and losing their identity is at risk as well. Subsequently, the camera serves as this invisible observer in motion.

Unfortunately, Rosi isn’t as interested in providing more context on the people in the film, with many of them going about their lives without us ever gaining a sense of who they are. There is an instance where some children draw and describe horrific pictures from experiences they’ve had with ISIS, but that’s about as close as we come to an emotional investment beyond the shots themselves.

A mother grieving for her son in Notturno

The film seems more concerned with allowing the setting to nurture our understanding of the people who occupy it rather than through the people themselves. These people enter the frame and the nothingness around them in order to reinforce just how little this land is actually theirs — it isn’t welcoming or even supportive of its occupants. In this sense, the land and Rosi’s shots of it is being used to demonstrate the governments (or lack thereof) failure to provide for its people.

One of the subjects in the film is a boy, Ali, who supports his mother and his many siblings by hunting for birds with various unknowns. When observed outside of the long and mid shots of his home where there is a sense of control and identity, he is often framed as a spec in the wider vastness of Rosi’s wide-shots. It’s a clever approach on Rosi’s part, but it provides the bare minimum in terms of understanding Ali’s situation and how he and his family make sense of the world around them.

The most profound aspect of the film, however, is Rosi’s ability to let the land speak for itself. There is little to no dialogue which creates an eerie sensation given that the countries in question are known for the violence and chaos that eschews the normalcy that otherwise exists. The only real sounds that continually penetrate the film are those natural ambient noises (birds chirping, water rushing, wind breezing etc.). When something other than natures sounds begins to present itself, it tends to be in the form of guns clocking and war trucks rolling. For what it’s worth, Rosi juxtaposes that aspect really well and leaves an uneasiness in one’s stomach.

Perhaps now more than ever, Notturno reminds audiences that colonisation and external interference in a once functioning nation, only does more harm than good — with the current situation in Afghanistan exacerbating that claim. Sure Rosi could have done with a greater engagement with his subjects, but it’s easy to see that his camera and the setting it captures are there to do the talking. While not as moving as Fire at Sea is during its best moments, Notturno is an essential viewing if not for its contemplative look on the countries at the centre of it, then for its relevance at this very point in time.

Notturno is currently streaming on MIFF Play until the 22nd of August.

MIFF ’21: Japan’s Volleyballers Get Their Due in The Witches of the Orient

History is littered with sporting dynasties – in basketball, Phil Jackson’s Chicago Bulls are often touted as one of the all-time greats; in rugby, it’s New Zealand’s fearsome All Blacks who reign supreme. Of equal significance to both is a group of female volleyballers from the East, whose exploits have sadly been underreported in recent years.

In the early 1960s, the world of women’s volleyball was dominated by the Nichibo Kaizuka team, consisting largely of textile workers from the outskirts of Osaka. Under the rigorous training regime of coach Hirofumi “The Demon” Diamatsu, this band of young women annihilated their domestic opponents, eventually being selected to represent Japan internationally against other, higher-ranked teams.

Diamatsu’s team would go on to be dubbed the “Oriental Witches” by the foreign press, owing to their athletic prowess and unparalleled succession of victories – 258, to be exact. This extraordinary feat saw the Japanese players become celebrities at home and abroad, inspiring cartoons, comics, and documentaries such as this one, albeit without the same levels of artistry and reflection.

The Witches of the Orient comes from French documentarian Julien Faraut, who three years ago examined the psyche of tennis player John McEnroe in another MIFF entry, In the Realm of Perfection. Much of Faraut’s narrative is composited of existing footage – including the aforementioned cartoons, plus material of the team competing in Eastern Europe – which is then paired with electronic music, an eclectic combination that leaves the viewer in a trance.

Perhaps the most mesmerising sequence of Witches is the archival film of the women training in Kaizuka. In this footage, coach Diamatsu can be seen relentlessly spiking balls at his players to ostensibly improve their return serve, forcing them to sprint and roll across the court until they are all but exhausted of energy. While Diamatsu’s arduous techniques are somewhat mortifying to witness, they do provide an indication as to why the Witches were so competitive.

Archival footage, such as the Gold Medal match at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, makes up a significant portion of The Witches of the Orient

Faraut’s story also draws upon interviews with Nichibo Kaizuka’s surviving members, who provide rare, exclusive access to their lives. The women never speak directly to the camera, instead providing voice-overs that are matched to their daily routines – the earliest example being Katsumi Chiba and her morning workout at a local gym – as well as a discussion between them over dinner.

There are some real gems offered in the ladies’ narration and B-roll of their activities. Yoshido Kanda speaks most candidly of all the former players, reflecting upon her status as a substitute player and why the women were so drawn to Diamatsu despite his gruelling nature; meanwhile, Yoko Tamura’s footage has a lifestyle to be envied, shown playing a game of memory with her grandchildren and watching volleyball anime with her family.

Although the narrative is transfixing, Witches would benefit from some tighter editing – the montages are too long at times, and there’s a sequence about the players’ nicknames that adds nothing to the story. There are some questionable stylistic choices too, with Faraut keeping a tight 4:3 frame throughout – even in contemporary settings – only to inexplicably transfer to a widescreen ratio in the third act.

Watching The Witches of the Orient, it’s difficult to fathom why their achievements have been so muted in contemporary media. The Nichibo Kaizuka story may not possess the drama or excitement of other sporting dynasties, but their winning streak is yet to be matched by any other volleyball team, as is the level of fame and fervour they generated overseas. Surely those facts alone are worth a place in sporting folklore.

Crafted with an element of idiosyncrasy, Julien Faraut’s The Witches of the Orient is a beguiling story about a group of women whose triumphs ought to be celebrated more. The openness and humility of the subjects is what charms most, though the mesmeric visuals play their part too.

The Witches of the Orient is currently streaming as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival on MIFF Play until August 22nd.