Todd Haynes channels the essence of rock group The Velvet Underground in this immersive documentary

The Velvet Underground

Source: PolyGram Entertainment

‘The Velvet Underground’

Dir/scr. Todd Haynes. US. 2021. 120 mins

Hypnotic, seductive, and, just simply, very cool: the good news is that The Velvet Underground is everything you might have expected and dreamed of a documentary made by Todd Haynes about the influential (yet ultimately penniless) 1960s New York avant grade rock group. Haynes, whose 1988 Velvet Goldmine skirted around some of these characters in a fictional way, does the art and the time, the people and the places, immersive justice. Any questions which remain chime tantalisingly with the work of his defiantly-impenetrable protagonists. 

Haynes deals with the band with admiration, but not uncritical reverence

Set for worldwide distribution through Apple TV+, this music doc sits at the top end of the genre – an aural and visual must for buffs and Velvet heads and those attracted to last year’s David Byrne concert American Utopia or the upcoming Summer Of Soul. The Velvet Underground has always been a slippery band to pin down, between the music, the drugs and the arguments, but Haynes navigates individual members, the band, the Factory and Andy Warhol in a mostly chronological and wholly comprehensible manner. The doc benefits greatly from the testimony of surviving members Maureen ‘Moe’ Tucker, and Welsh experimentalist John Cale, alongside extensive footage shot at the Factory and archive gems. 

Parts are even funny. Deathly-serious 1960s art experimentation – Cale taking an axe to a piano, for example – can look amusing in the cold light of cynical 2021, not to mention the band’s violent loathing of hippie culture. There are sad moments; neither Nico nor Lou Reed have survived to contribute, although they didn’t die of the drug issues that plagued the band during its five-year lifespan. Guitarist Sterling Morrison also passed away in 1995.

Much as in real life, this celluloid stunner inevitably winds up becoming the Lou Reed show as he sacks band members left and right, starting with manager Warhol. He was impossible to placate: “If you tried to please him, he’d hate you more,” says Cale, who was himself eventually fired by this precocious genius with the temperament “of a three year-old”, although the man who wrote ‘Heroin’ and enjoyed an excessive lifestyle did survive to the semi-ripe old age of 71 as the contented partner of Laurie Anderson. His sister contributes here, leading to the hope that if Haynes could pull this together — the entire Underground music catalogue included – a Reed doc might not be too far out of reach.

The coming together of wild-child poet Reed with intense musical modernist John Cale – a Welshman from the Valleys who only learned English at the age of seven – and their chic slide into Warhol’s Factory is judiciously catalogued through personal recollection, archival footage and talking-head testimony (John Waters, Jackson Browne, even the voice of David Bowie at one point). Starting with a quote from Baudelaire (‘music fathoms the sky’), Haynes assembles a montage which mirrors the mood of the times and the band before diving back into the 1950s with the story of Cale and Reed.

While The Velvet Underground talks about Reed’s background – clinical depression as a child, shock therapy, homosexuality, ’a degrading idea of sex’ – Haynes does it with a light touch, and spends equally as much time, if not more, on Cale’s background and his musical collaborations which led to the initial amplified and multi-layered drone sound of the band (”like a B52 bomber in your living room”).  This is balanced out with time at the Factory, which starts nearly an hour in and includes ‘Warhol’s Kiss’, and the eventual arrival of atonal Nico as frontwoman. (“It was not a good place for women,” recalls Amy Taubin).

Once again, though, Nico’s co-option into the band – at Warhol’s request – and dismissal (“she “wandered off”) is treated with kindness. Haynes deals with the band on the level they wanted (as musical poets, innovators and influencers) with admiration, but not uncritical reverence. Achieving this balance is hard, especially given how intimidatingly difficult they all were, but Haynes is clearly confident around the milieu as an artist himself. In short, The Velvet Underground is a documentary that meets the Velvet Underground eye-to-eye and enriches it.

Production companies: Motto Pictures, Killer Films, Polygram Entertainment, Federal Films

International distribution: Apple TV+

Producers: David Blackman, Christopher Clements, Julie Goldman, Todd Haynes, Christine Vachon

Cinematography: Edward Lachman

Editing: Affonso Goncalves, Adam Kurnitz

Music: The Velvet Underground