During the era of flower power and rising hippie culture, members of the Velvet Underground wore black and sang songs about hard drugs and sordid sexual encounters. Image Apple TV +
The growth of streaming platforms has brought a huge increase in documentary making, with an audience larger than ever. “The Velvet Underground,” director Todd Haynes’s (“Carol,” “Dark Waters”) new film about the iconic New York band led by Lou Reed, which opens in theaters Friday and will also air on Apple TV +, stands out in this crowded field. It does the things that most music documentaries do, detailing the group’s rise and fall with a mix of photographs, movie clips, and commentary gleaned from recent interviews, including conversations with surviving members John Cale and Maureen Tucker.
But it does much more. “The Velvet Underground” is a beautiful poetic meditation on the emotional and cultural power of rock and the charm of making a living in art.
Even before starting work on this project, Haynes was a prominent rock and pop chronicler. In 1987, he made the cult classic “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” a short that used Barbie dolls instead of actors. His 1998 film “Velvet Goldmine” fictionalized aspects of the rise of David Bowie and took place in the atmosphere of the glam-rock from the early 1970s, and his 2007 film “I’m Not There” found several actors, including Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale, performing scenes based on the life of Bob Dylan.
Compared to those intricate semi-fictional stories, “The Velvet Underground” is straightforward in perspective and construction. It begins with details of the childhood of Reed, who grew up on Long Island, New York, and Cale, in Wales, and ends when the original incarnation of the band does, in the late 1970s, when Reed simply walked away as he was about to release his latest album with him at the helm, “Loaded”. But Haynes puts his own stamp on the material, using the film to tell the story of the hectic and revolutionary world of 1960s New York avant-garde, especially in the worlds of experimental film and music.
Velvet Underground’s usual story is told in terms of its place in music and its latest rejection by the record industry. During the era of flower power and the rising culture hippie, the Velvet Underground members wore black and sang songs about hard drugs and sordid sexual encounters.
Although Velvet Underground was championed by Andy Warhol during the height of his influence, his record label ignored the group and his audience remained small. Haynes touches on this whole story, but spends a lot more time celebrating the greatness of the band.
We’re almost halfway through the movie before the group begins recording their first album, 1967’s “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” featuring the titular German singer who had become a regular at Warhol’s hangout, The Factory. Haynes takes his time setting the parameters of the art world in the post-WWII city center, emphasizing the cutting-edge film created by those in and out of Warhol’s orbit and using the split screen to transmit the era.
Often times, one of Warhol’s “screen tests” (three-minute films showing a nearly motionless subject staring at the camera) is juxtaposed with an audio-only archival interview with the subject, while another part of the Your screen can have quick-cut snapshots of street life in SoHo or the Lower East Side or clips of abstract animations.
The focus of collage allows the director to include more information and context into the film’s two-hour runtime than would otherwise be available, and it also carries the thrill of sensory overload experienced when one is young and immersed in a new and exciting kind of creativity. Filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas defended many of the artists whose work appears here, and speaks in some of his final interviews before his death in 2019.
Haynes worked with a severe limitation imposed by history and another that he imposed on himself. There are very few live footage from Velvet Underground, and what does exist has poor sound. So he had to reconstruct what the band might have looked like onstage by editing existing material – much of it shot by Warhol – along with photographs and concert recordings with varying degrees of fidelity. And he chose to conduct filmed interviews only with people who were actually there.
The stories are framed in terms of what they meant at the time. This makes the narrative appear to be taking place in the present tense. Singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman, who would later lead the Modern Lovers before embarking on a solo career, offers a serious and endearing account of seeing the Velvet Underground in Boston as a teenager. He claims to have attended shows from the “60s or 70s” and says the band completely changed his life. The emotion of the time clearly lives on within him.
As with any documentary on such a large subject, what is left out is just as important as what Haynes includes. For the director, the best years of the band came with their first two albums, after which Reed fired Warhol as the group’s producer and dismissed Cale. Comparatively little time is spent on the 1969 LP “The Velvet Underground” and “Loaded” from 1970, both made with Cale’s replacement, Doug Yule, who appears in voiceover, but not in an on-camera interview.
The most profound absence from the film concerns Reed, who died in 2013. While his voice is heard in all archival interviews, his comments tend to be concise and brief. Reed was known as a prickly guy in profile, and he wasn’t prone to pondering the Velvet Underground much.
Which makes Reed’s appearance at the end of the movie even more surprising. We see him speak in front of the camera for the first time in a short clip from the 1970s, casually talking to Warhol about catching up with his former bandmates. And then “The Velvet Underground” concludes with an acoustic version of “Heroin” recorded in 1972, during a concert for French television with Reed, Cale and Nico.
Finally, we see Velvet Underground songs performed by their creators in high quality, and then the credits appear. The immediacy of the group’s brief life gives way to the imposing legacy they left behind, to which Haynes’s documentary now counts as a substantial contribution.