Staff Picks: ‘The Velvet Underground,’ ‘The Nazi’s Granddaughter’ and Tammy Faye

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Staff Picks 1.28.22 ‘The Velvet Underground,’ ‘The Nazi’s Granddaughter’ and Tammy Faye
BOOK

The Nazi’s Granddaughter: How I Discovered My Grandfather Was a War Criminal
by Silvia Foti

Imagine growing up as the granddaughter of a legendary hero, a man whose memory was venerated by his country, with streets and schools named after him as well as monuments and plaques installed in his honor. Jonas Noreika, aka “General Storm,” was such a man—a Lithuanian who fought against the German and Soviet occupiers during the Second World War; he was incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp and then finally shot by the KGB in 1947. 

Silvia Foti was raised in Chicago, where local Lithuanians treated her as if she were descended from a royal family. But when she went on a trip to Lithuania in 2000, Foti discovered that the reality was very different—and she devoted the next 20 years to peeling back the layers of deceits, obfuscations and denials she had been told all her life by her mother, grandmother and fellow Lithuanians.

Foti’s brave and intrepid journey led her to heartbreaking discoveries. Her book reads like a detective story. Shockingly, Noreika continues to be revered in Lithuania, despite Foti’s revelations that he effectively did the Nazis’ dirty work for them—rounding up Jews, imprisoning them, stealing their property and signing orders for the murder of at least 14,500 of his compatriots.

Reading this book confirmed to me that there really are champions among us, and Silvia Foti is one of them. Reviled by her own community for shining a light on her grandfather’s appalling history, she nonetheless soldiered on. And what she exposes made me realize, to my horror, how Lithuania has obscured, distorted and lied about its own citizens’ complicity in genocide, and that the cover-up continues to this day. It is surely well past time for the country, a member of the European Union no less, to come clean and acknowledge its terrible legacy of antisemitism and involvement with the ideology, and actions, of Nazism. If Foti could find the strength to lay bare the truth, surely it is incumbent on the Lithuanian government and people to now follow in her admirable footsteps—admit their forebears’ guilt. —Dina Gold, Senior Editor

FILM

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

The Eyes of Tammy Faye shares the rise and fall, and perhaps the resurrection, of Tammy Faye Bakker, the Christian televangelist and wife of Jim Bakker who rose to fame in the 1970s and 1980s. At the biopic’s start, viewers see Tammy Faye at North Central Bible College, eager to share her faith and hopefulness with the world. In class she meets her future husband, Bakker, whose religious views resonate with her ebullient optimism. A theological misfit because he sermonizes against the tenets of the restrictive religious curriculum, Jim preaches love, acceptance and wealth for believers. When their marriage gets them tossed out of college, the couple embarks on an odyssey to spread their personal view of Christianity. 

The Bakkers’ brand of evangelicalism eventually lands them their own television show. Tammy is a trailblazer as a woman preaching on Christian television, pushing boundaries by interviewing a gay man with AIDS with kindness and respect. She and Jim go on to succeed in building not just the world’s largest religious broadcasting network, but also a religious theme park and an over-the-top, opulent lifestyle, all crafted from donations made to their church by their loyal followers. What ensues are scandals, jealousies and jail time. 

The movie supports several interesting themes: Could the religious right can hold different views regarding homosexuality? Could blind faith in God can blind oneself to evil? Does Tammy’s iconic status in the gay community today suggest redemption? Despite offering the viewer a too  rosy portrayal of Tammy Faye, the movie prompted me to think deeply about religious influence in contemporary America. I was surprised that Tammy Faye, whom I had seen ridiculed for years in popular culture for her chipper demeanor, garish makeup and relentless faith, was so much more than her downfall. —Diane Heiman, Senior Editor

DOCUMENTARY

The Velvet Underground
Directed by Todd Haynes

Despite The Velvet Underground’s debut album—“The Velvet Underground & Nico,” with a front LP cover of a plastic banana peel and the signature of its producer, Pop Art legend Andy Warhol—arriving sandwiched between 1967’s hippie “Summer of Love” and the whimsical Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” Lou Reed and the rest of the Velvets didn’t like the Beatles and despised hippies. “This peace-love crap, we hated that,” says drummer Maureen Tucker in Todd Haynes’ visually remarkable documentary The Velvet Underground, now streaming on Apple TV+. Armed with lengthy excerpts from Warhol films, Haynes cobbles together the story of a band that lasted only five years, got no radio airtime and produced no chart-topping hits, but is still listened to today.

Reed was a restless and rebellious Jewish teenager from Long Island who loved the standard doo-wop music of the 1950s, but also drew inspiration from hard-driving guitarists Bo Didley and Lightnin’ Hopkins. He attended Syracuse University, where he fell under the spell of bohemian poet and author Delmore Schwartz (also Jewish). Haynes doesn’t delve into Reed’s Jewish dimension—Reed himself once reportedly said: “My God is rock n’ roll!”—though critics have parsed his lyrics for clues connecting lines such as “all the dead bodies piled up in mounds”  in his song “Heroin” to a perhaps unconscious reference to the Holocaust.

Haynes’ documentary captures how the Velvets epitomized a long-lost lower Manhattan art scene—an outgrowth of the 1950s “Beatnik” era—with their all-black clothing and ubiquitous shades. For a time, they were the musical expression of Warhol’s brand of what would later be called “multimedia,” as exemplified in their show “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable.” It was flashing lights, films and slides projected onto walls, and Reed’s closing-in-on-death voice in the songs “Run Run Run” and “I’m Waiting for My Man.” Percussionist Maureen Tucker used mallets, not drumsticks. John Cale’s screechy electric viola recalled a subway navigating a curve at the nearby Union Square station. Nico, a blonde model and aspiring pop star, inflected the songs “Femme Fatale” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties” with her German elocution. 

The documentary is less persuasive in explaining the enduring appeal of the Velvets. Personally, when the Velvet Underground first surfaced in 1966-1967, I was a kid on the Upper West Side about to enter high school on the Upper East Side. My brother bought the first album with its peel-off banana cover. I remember thinking “Heroin” was musically appealing, but the lyrics were repellant given the devastation of heroin addiction in New York. But all the albums, especially their final two, have an abiding charm, and I’ve listened to their songs ever since. 

The Velvets’ secret may lie in an oft-cited quote about how the Velvet Underground’s first album sold only a few thousand copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band. Indeed, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno and countless punk bands cite the Velvets as inspiration. My younger son was even part of a duo that sang what is arguably Nico’s best cut, “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” at my older son’s wedding.

“When I was growing up, the Beatles felt kind of old to me,” he says, “but the Velvet Underground felt like a fresh, rebellious alternative.” —Dan Freedman, Senior Editor

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