This film is difficult to rate. If you're not a Velvet Underground fan, consider it a tedious mess which you should avoid at all costs. Even if you're a casual VU fan who just wants to hear the "hits," you will be bitterly disappointed. But if you're a true believer in VU's uncompromising aesthetic as a blueprint for music to come, you won't want to miss this rare look at the band in action.
This is essentially the only decent footage of the Velvet Underground performing, and it captures the group's ultimate lineup with both John Cale and chanteuse Nico. The film originally was intended as a background projection for the group's live shows during setup and tuning.
Under Andy Warhol's "direction," the camera sits on a tripod about 15 feet away. It pivots, zooms and drifts in and out of focus. The zooming is crucial, because its amateurish overuse constantly leaves the viewer frustrated about sights which lie outside the frame. There seems to be one cut halfway through the film, but perhaps this was just a flaw of the particular version I saw. In any case, it is one continuous take.
After two minutes of aimless tuning, the music lurches into motion and takes the form of an extended instrumental, approximately 50 minutes long. The shaggy improvisation is essentially one-chord, and intermittently has the flavor of a vaguely Middle Eastern drone. The members are mostly seated throughout, and everyone but Nico wears dark glasses. Guitarists Lou Reed (who had a terminal case of bedhead, even then) and Sterling Morrison are at left. John Cale plays viola in the front right, and drummer Mo Tucker is behind him. Nico moves around a bit, but typically lurks in the center while casually tapping a tambourine. She draws the most closeups because, after all, she is the beauty. Her young son is perched on the floor in front of her, making amused faces and sometimes shaking a maraca.
If you want a comparison with a canonical Velvets track, the closest relative is probably the first album's "European Son." One big thrill is seeing a few closeups where Reed tightly jiggles his pick across the strings, creating that high, febrile tremor which will make any VU fan crow with recognition. Ah, there is that sound! There are solid shots of Cale sawing away too, and he also spends some time experimenting with what appear to be amplified bedsprings vertically strung on a rack. However, Reed's body hides most of Morrison's guitar work, and the nonchalant Tucker simply isn't trying very hard.
The music's momentum and sense of purpose begin to erode with about 20 minutes to go (Reed seems especially distracted), and the band stops playing altogether eight or nine minutes later. The remaining portion of the film is fairly disposable, beyond offering some glimpses of Warhol and a brief look at Reed without his glasses. A policeman or two walks around good-naturedly -- apparently, a neighbor protested the noise. No surprise there.