'The Velvet Underground' Is the Brilliant, Bold Documentary the Band Deserve Directed by Todd Haynes
Starring John Cale, Maureen Tucker, Jonathan Richman, Jackson Browne, John Waters
Published Oct 18, 2021Much like listening to the band itself, Todd Haynes' stunning documentary, The Velvet Underground, is an immersive sensory experience and exploration of art, imagination and the power of giving ideas a chance. It leaves the viewer altered. Forever? Probably, we shall see.
With a visual, blocked split-screen aesthetic that marries Andy Warhol's interest in filmed stillness and stark, hard stare portraiture with the Technicolor mania of 1960s New York City, Haynes' documentary is completely arresting and, in its clever construction, exemplifies the dizzying artistic and cinematic expression it profiles. It's pop art, with quick cuts of television and cinema of the time mingling with archival footage of places, buildings and faces, famous and otherwise, who dwell upon the screen, looking at us looking at them, each wondering about what goes on in the other's mind, but mostly moving on before any firm decisions are made.
There are insightful new interviews (filmed in 2018) with the band's surviving original members (John Cale and Maureen Tucker), lovers and spouses, early collaborators, and confidants, plus some remarkable and lively perspectives from fans and contemporaries, including: innovative avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas (who has passed away since participating in the film), Jonathan Richman (who says he saw the Velvets live, "60 or 70 times"), music impresario Danny Fields, songwriter Jackson Browne, filmmaker John Waters, and Warhol Superstars Mary Woronov and Amy Taubin, among others. Anyone who has passed away, including the band's Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison, as well as David Bowie, appears via archive footage and disembodied audio interviews.
Using rare, demo and instrumental recordings of the band's songs before shocking us with the big noise of their best-known released versions, the film bends time and space in such a disorienting manner, we feel convinced that we are right beside its subjects, as contemporaries to their youthful selves. And the thing is, there is a lot to experience and learn about the human mind by hanging out with the Velvet Underground.
On an informational level, Haynes does present the band's trajectory in a linear, if cursory fashion. Profiling Reed, the film suggests the late songwriter's struggles, rage and emotional volatility as a child, teen and young adult lead to his interest in becoming a rich, rock star at all costs, but also to his penchant for life's extremes, like abusing heroin, exploring sexuality, or making unsettling audio and visual art (he was made to stifle his same-sex attraction via electroshock therapy and societal censure). His sister Merrill Reed Weiner, who appears here, briefly disputes the notion that their parents are to blame for Reed's suffering, alienation, nasty temper and penchant for confrontational and contrary stances.
After some staff songwriting work for a small pop label, Reed encounters the classically trained Welsh musician John Cale, whose interest in the non-standard use of musical instruments, sustained tones, alpha-rhythms and drones — as pioneered by the likes of the late John Cage and La Monte Young (who participates in a fresh interview for the film) — strikes something profound within him. He and Cale (who also professes a love for the infectious darkness of the Everly Brothers and the Beatles) begin collaborating on improvised and composed music, infused in no small part by Reed's keenness for "Beat" and counter-cultural poets and writers like William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg.
"There was a standard to be set," Cale remarks, "for how to be elegant and how to be brutal."
Bohemian New York City in the mid-to-late 1960s was a hell of a drug. It was so powerful a character, Haynes introduces it the same as he does any human subject here, with a stunning and swirling visual interplay; the screen is always dancing and moving assertively, much like NYC did some 70 years ago.
It's the city that the revolutionary artist from Pittsburgh, Andy Warhol, settled into and established the Factory, a subterranean arts hub that attracted myriad underground creators and scenesters (everyone from Bob Dylan to Jackie Kennedy dropped by), who seemed to find all sorts of fun in pointedly and playfully messing with life and its conventions while also finding the avant-garde in the ordinary (but mostly, as Taubin laments, among strikingly beautiful, young people).
After their band the Primitives ran its course, Reed and Cale found like-minded souls in the Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker, formed the Velvet Underground (who had the potential to be like "Wagner-meets-Bo Diddley," Cale remarks) and, via word of mouth by Factory acolytes (including the taste-making poet Gerard Malanga), came to the attention of Warhol, who saw the band as a compelling new art project. He began managing and producing the band, curating the Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia series that the band performed at and installing the actor/model/musician Nico in their midst as an occasional singer.
This early blast of auspicious activity sets the tone and is really the core that Haynes' documentary emanates and takes power from. That's where the imagination of the Velvet Underground feels the most alive and limitless — when both they and NYC seemed capable of truly changing the world of art and culture and, by some form of osmosis, the way we all thought, generally. And, by the film's reckoning — by its very existence — the band and its peers did change the world, even if their aura wasn't fully appreciated for what it really was until it was no more.
In the film, beyond the band making their first big splash, the facts are the facts: the Velvet Underground would go on to play concerts and tour ("We'd play art shows and we were the exhibit," Tucker says, chuckling), leave Warhol and Nico behind, make three more classic records (plus one more after Reed split), lose John Cale to Reed's anger and gain guitarist Doug Yule (here represented by a brief voiceover observation), endure the cruel morning that shone a light on the Factory's darkness (Warhol was shot and almost died), and weather Reed's impulsive behaviour as they ambled forward, trying to "make it" in music by softening their sound to be more pop (i.e. "Sweet Jane") before ultimately parting ways, with occasional reunions occurring over the ensuing decades for special events and memorials. Though considered the gods and pioneers of everything cool about music now, the Velvets toiled in obscurity and derision when they were young and vibrant and sputtered to an embittered end; Morrison, Nico, Warhol and Reed all died by disease or other health issues.
We only see Reed speaking on-camera once at the end of The Velvet Underground, filmed roughly in some kind of living quarters in perhaps the 1980s, speaking with an aged Warhol about some artwork. Up until this point, Reed is only heard speaking sporadically and is otherwise only seen via film footage and photographs, like he's more of an idea than he is a person.
In a sense, that's what the heart of Haynes' gorgeous film is about: the power and strength of human ingenuity, sure, but also a celebration of believing in ideas, of sticking to your convictions, against all odds and the bewilderment of gawkers and normies.
There're some clips shown here from September 16, 1963, when Cale appeared on the American game show I've Got a Secret as a panelist and performer, well before the VU were even a glimmer in his eye. After asking Cale about performing Erik Satie's "Vexations" 840 times in a row for an 18-hour concert, the host, Garry Moore, eggs on the audience to laugh (nervously, from fear of the unknown?) at the classical musician's challenging work, as though it were nothing more than a novelty — so incomprehensible (and challenging), it's considered absurd.
Todd Haynes' The Velvet Underground does the opposite; it takes the band and their artistic contemporaries and the Factory and the harmony and the noise and the world's constant hums and drones and the beauty and the pollution and the expression of something primal and different in life and challenging ideas deadly seriously. As it should have been, and as it should always be. (Apple)