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 This is not a historical document; it’s a hallucinatory time-capsule.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.
Haynes does not use talking heads to argue for the band’s greatness, and instead loops several versions of the same tune. We hear several interesting, albeit incomplete versions of “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man” before they finally stand, every piece in place, as singular rock songs. Some interviewees offer context about the band’s performances, however, since they are impossible to recreate. The Modern Lovers’ Jonathan Richman proves to be invaluable, with his “aw shucks” charm making us wish we could have been there for one show or sixty.
Reed, Cale, and the vocalist Nico are larger than life figures, and the film shrewdly refines their reputation. There are great stories about the mercurial Reed, a sullen figure who seemingly managed to alienate everyone who gave him a chance, even if they could not deny his talent. Cale is the most introspective interviewee, and since he never really joined pop music’s mainstream, his outsider status proves him the most historically useful. Sometimes Haynes opts for reconsideration rather than reverence, showing Nico as more than an ingénue, but a serious vocalist who wrote lyrics to match her unusual voice.
That’s not to say that Haynes looks at the band and their milieu with rose-colored glasses. Several former Warhol superstars talk about the sexism in that circle, while Reed’s struggles with sexuality and addiction cut deep, perhaps in a way that was not worth the material he gathered for his art. The Velvet Underground does not condemn these facets, and instead is matter-of-fact about how things were. Then again, maybe time traveling to see this band wouldn’t have been that fun after all.
Haynes is best known for melodramas like Far From Heaven and Carol, and yet two key films show us why he is the only director for this project. His unconventional Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There is an early example of matching form and subject, yet his ’70s glam musical Velvet Goldmine shows us the influence Reed, David Bowie, and others had on Haynes personally. In that film, Christian Bale is a stand-in for Haynes, a young man grappling with his sexuality who finds inspiration in unconventional rock stars while listening to records alone in his bedroom. The appeal of The Velvet Underground is that Haynes finally finds a more complete way to share that magical spell. Its kaleidoscopic, fractured approach is the only way to see why so many fans started their own bands, or became filmmakers.
The Velvet Underground will be on Apple TV+ and in theaters starting October 15.
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