Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground Is a Hallucinatory Time Capsule

In a 1989 interview with The New York Times, The Velvet Underground vocalist and guitarist Lou Reed said, “There’s a joke that we didn’t sell many records, but that everyone who bought them went out and started a band.” This observation has been revised over the years—it apparently was first said by Brian Eno in 1982—but it remains in the imagination for rock ’n’ roll obsessives because it speaks to the band’s mystique. To this day, liking The Velvet Underground can feel like being a part of a hip cohort who mix sophistication with rebellion. The Velvet Underground, a documentary film by Todd Haynes, taps into that feeling without being too obvious about it. This is Haynes’ first nonfiction film, and his unusual approach gives an impression of the New York City art scene in the 1960s without the usual navel-gazing about the band’s influence.

It is impossible to separate The Velvet Underground from Andy Warhol. The pop artist designed their first album cover, and he used his influence to get the group their first significant recognition. By that same token, Haynes recreates Warhol’s visual aesthetic for his film. The film looks like a visual art collage, not a usual documentary. There are snippets of new interviews—including with John Cale and Moe Tucker, the band’s surviving members—overlaid with imagery from Warhol’s films and other experimental art from the period. When Haynes introduces us to Reed, for example, there is a split screen of early photographs and Reed’s close-up, in crisp black and white, staring directly at the camera. Sometimes the screen splits into dozens of different images, and the effect is dizzying. Haynes goes in so many different directions because that’s the only way to make sense of the band. This is not a historical document; it’s a hallucinatory time-capsule.

Along with an unapologetic subjectivity, what makes the film valuable is its sense of place. Haynes ably suggests why this particular group of musicians stumbled into something extraordinary. It all happened by accident: Reed’s pop sensibility and gritty lyrics blended perfectly with Cale’s interest in experimental drone music, while Tucker’s minimal percussion heightened the tension. No one could articulate what made “Venus in Furs” so special, except there was something to it that had not existed in music before. Their mix of ugliness and beauty is infectious, and also leads to the film’s few moments of humor: In a trip to California, their all-black hipster aesthetic stands in stark contrast to sunny hippies, and Tucker in particular talks about hippie counterculture with eloquent disgust.

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