The Velvet Underground Brings Back the Thrills of the 1960s Avant-Garde

Todd Haynes’s excellent new documentary on legendary rock band the Velvet Underground reminds us of just how daring both music and film once was not that long ago.

Members of the Velvet Underground with Andy Warhol. (thatspep / Flickr)

There’s a lot of critical oohing and aahing over the fact that, for his first documentary, director Todd Haynes (Dark Waters, Carol, Safe) gets a bit adventurous in depicting the meteoric rise and fall of the legendary 1960s New York band the Velvet Underground. There is lots of gorgeous split-screen work, for example, mostly creating a diptych effect but sometimes adding screens for triptych, quadriptych, or even a full mosaic effect of a dozen images.

Haynes dedicated the documentary, streaming now on Apple TV+, to avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas, because, as Haynes puts it, he wanted it “to feel like the images and the music were leading your experience as a viewer, and that the oral history . . . would have to play just behind all of that.”

There are moments in The Velvet Underground when this approach works beautifully — such as Mekas saying, “New York became a place where artists escape,” while the black-and-white tortured-youth imagery representing Lou Reed’s and John Cale’s lonely childhoods on Long Island and in Wales, respectively, suddenly leaps into vivid color and faster tempo. It’s a smart way to kick off the film: it mirrors aspects of the music they’ll wind up making together, with the more Reed-driven, dark, agitated sounds and lyrics resting on Cale’s steady “drone” — the sonic, industrial landscape of what he called “the sound of Western civilization.”

So far, so good. It’s a promising angle on the material. But it’s indicator number five million that we are living through such a timid, backward, sad-sack era of cinema that an entirely appropriate but not at all revolutionary strategy should get such awed, rave-review commentary from critics, such as A. O. Scott’s: “It’s . . . a jagged and powerful work of art in its own right, one that turns archeology into prophecy.”

There are also warnings to the merely Velvet-curious not to even try to take on such a challenging viewing experience:

There are no outside voices to give context. There is very little performance footage. . . . The Velvet Underground is a transmission sent from inside the group’s orbit, and those not already tuned to its frequency won’t get the message.

Though full of formalist bravado, this is really a fairly conventional documentary, tracing the nine-year life of the band in a perfectly comprehensible and viewer-friendly manner. Haynes admits quite frankly in interviews that he began with the traditional documentary talking-head format and built from there.

His one unusual mandate was excluding any interviewee who hadn’t actually been part of or witnessed the band in action, so we’re spared the blathering commentary of, say, Justin Bieber or Lin-Manuel Miranda or some other dubious entertainment industry personality going on about what a supposed big-wow influence the band was on them. Jonathan Richman from the Modern Lovers (and There’s Something About Mary) appears as a talking head — but only because, as a teenager, he saw the band perform roughly seventy times.

The poster for The Velvet Underground, directed by Todd Haynes. (Apple TV+)

Some of the most inspiring moments in Haynes’s documentary come with the arrival of Andy Warhol — the band’s producer, promoter, and patron. In the Velvet Underground, Warhol saw the ideal house band for the Factory, his legendary studio. At that time in the mid-1960s, they were all in a state of creative frenzy, trying to figure out what art should look like, what music should sound like, and what could be done with our sense of time and space in film.

Of course, this ethic of strenuous experimentation tends to get far less attention than all the sex and drugs at the Factory, though Warhol was generally silk-screening new paintings right next to the orgy. Reed always emphasized Warhol’s killer work ethic, saying that if he told Warhol he wrote ten songs, Warhol would say, “Oh, you’re so lazy, why didn’t you write fifteen?”

Early in the documentary, we see Warhol’s hypnotic, silent, black-and-white portrait films of the young and beautiful Reed and Cale — all guests at the Factory were required to sit for them. These cinematic portraits, along with Warhol’s much-mocked films of radical minimalism like Sleep and Kiss and Empire, all featured in the documentary, get a lot more interesting when you study them closely, just like all things Warhol. The documentary quotes Reed intoning about them, “I feel as if I were in a motion picture theater. . . . I am anonymous, I have forgotten myself. . . . It is always so in movies. It is a drug.”

Can you remember the last time a movie was good enough to make you feel like you were on drugs? Sadly, we’re in a real clean and sober era, movie-wise, which is why you might find yourself checking your phone so often, scornfully taking note of production gaffes and unrealistic plot developments. I was in a theater recently with someone criticizing the lack of realistic plausibility in the latest James Bond movie. A James Bond movie.

But at least Todd Haynes is trying to remind us of the then mind-bending delights of yore, drawing on scintillating imagery from the experimental films of Warhol, Mekas, Jack Smith, Tony Conrad, Marie Menken, Stan Brakhage, and Barbara Rubin. It puts you in the right mental state to appreciate the darker, wilder, dirtier gorgeousness of the Velvet Underground. It’s clear that Haynes is in love with Reed, Cale, Sterling Morrison, Moe Tucker, and Nico — but mainly Cale, whose long, lean, dramatic face has only gotten more impossibly photogenic in old age.

They were such a visually beautiful group, it’s remarkable that manager Andy Warhol — who guarded the band from record company interference until Lou Reed, seeking popular success, finally fired him — mandated the inclusion of staggeringly lovely model-actor-singer Nico. As Reed put it, “Andy said we needed a chanteuse because none of us were good-looking enough.”

Personally, my favorite image of them from the film is one that has to be pictured in the mind’s eye — it’s described by the formidable Factory star Mary Woronov, who went on a West Coast tour with the band as a performance artist. Out in bright and shiny California, the New York band found themselves completely at odds with the West Coast environment full of health nuts and sunbathers, staying at the Tropicana in Los Angeles: “We’re all in black, all completely covered up, sitting by the pool . . .”

They must’ve looked, poolside, like sun-trapped vampires about to go up in smoke. And their hatred was pure. As Woronov puts it with a bracing revulsion that spans decades, “They were hippies. We hated hippies. I mean, ‘Flower Power’? . . . What the fuck is wrong with you?”

As the counterculture to the counterculture, the band struggled along acrimoniously until, as Tucker puts it, “We just ground to a halt.” But in documentary form, Haynes works hard to achieve some sort of resurrection of the short, brilliant life of the band. As he wrote in tribute:

This was not just music but a kind of drug, some strange elixir that affected the drives associated with making things. . . . This was music that singled you out, identified you not only as someone who suffers and transgresses but who believes in it. This was music that aroused creative desire.

In other words, if you don’t feel a raging envy, wishing you were there, the documentary’s not doing its job.