There are infinite ways to tell the story of The Velvet Underground. An infinite amount of people have been profoundly influenced and changed by the band, with every individual latching onto different elements from specific moments to the point where the famous Brian Eno quote about the band somehow understates their impact. So if you asked 10,000 filmmakers to capture The Velvet Underground and what makes them personally influential to them, you would be given 10,000 vastly different films. Luckily for us, Todd Haynes is a perfect scribe for the group in his debut documentary film.
In a similar way to Haynes’ extraordinary 2007 Bob Dylan film I’m Not There, many may be left wanting by this documentary if you come to it with your own expectations for what this film should be. If you are deeply versed in The Velvet Underground’s story and want this film to chronicle their entire arc from 1964 to their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1996, you will not find that here. If you are seeking a film stacked with unearthed concert footage, unfortunately you will be left disappointed (this would have taken the film to a truly transcendent place but alas, that footage barely exists). If you have only vaguely heard of the band, of the names Lou Reed and John Cale, and only recognise the Warhol banana through t-shirts and couch cushions, I genuinely don’t know how you would feel about this film but you may be left beguiled and full of questions, while also hopefully gaining an understanding of the reverie so many have for the group.
Too often music documentaries focus on either deconstructing the art to the point of banality, or mythologising to the point of absurdity. What makes Haynes’ film so refreshing is his ability to deconstruct individual moments of the Velvets history without removing the artistic mystery that made the band grow as a source of creative inspiration for generations, whilst never overstating that cultural weight. An entire documentary could be made about the bands that owe their entire musical identity to The Velvet Underground – or even just a single song – but that would not create a compelling film and is not something a filmmaker of Haynes’ calibre would create when given the opportunity. Instead, Haynes focuses on the birth of the band and the environment they were sculpting and being sculpted by.
By focusing on the polarity of John Cale’s avant-garde tendencies and Lou Reed’s lyricism and pop sensibilities, Haynes captures what makes the band’s early years so powerful and unique, while never shying away from how those tensions would inevitably divide the group. Haynes further illustrates this polarity through the film’s style. Heavily influenced from Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s split-screen feature Chelsea Girls (1966), the documentary constantly shows us two images, sometimes to pair with the narrative of the sequence, but often in stark contrast, made most potent whenever Haynes shows Cale and Reed’s profile footage from The Factory side-by-side.
A master of period filmmaking, Haynes captures the early 60s art moment in New York beautifully. By focusing on the visual and aesthetic elements of the film, Haynes has created a truly visceral project that is rare in documentary filmmaking, especially in the genre of retrospective music documentary. Haynes has curated a filmography out of deconstructing genres and movements from Douglas Sirk to Bob Dylan, while also being able to freeze a moment in amber. One would think a filmmaker that constantly goes back to previous era would fill their films with nostalgia and sentimentality, but what makes Haynes’ films so poignant and fresh is his ability to articulate the universality of stories. The magic trick Haynes is constantly able to pull off in his films is the ability to interrogate a moment heavily while never devaluing it. In a similar way he critiqued while also showing deep admiration to Douglas Sirk in Far From Heaven (2002), Haynes takes a similar approach to the 60s New York art movement, centred around Warhol’s Factory.
An absolute treat of the documentary is the interview with American avant-garde icon Jonas Mekas, who died in early 2019 which had to have been not long after the interview was conducted. Haynes pays great respect throughout the film to the underground and avant-garde movements that inspired him, as well as the icons that inspired Warhol and Cale like Mekas, John Cage, and La Monte Young. You can feel the deep connection Haynes has to this movement and how important it was to the establishment of The Velvet Underground and how it contrasted so heavily with Reed’s pop leanings that created the tension of the band. Tension that ignited into extraordinary music that ultimately drove Cale and Reed apart.
The spectre of Lou Reed is palpable through the documentary which culminates in a piece of fascinating final footage that shows even after everything they went through, he was still close to Cale. The documentary does not aim to dispel the mysteries of the band – an impossible task given the lack of concert footage as well as the ability to interview Reed for the film. A seemingly unknowable person, it is apparent throughout the film that people were hesitant to speak for Lou, making the audience constantly ponder what Reed would think about each moment in their storied history.
The visual splendour coupled with The Velvet’s music makes for a mesmerising experience that would’ve been greatly improved by being viewed in a theatre. The sequences and images of the band playing live at Warhol’s Studio 54 should be projected onto walls, and the slow crawl of the opening sequence set to “Venus in Furs” should be seen and heard in a loud, dark room. It is a sad reality that this opportunity is unavailable to us due to its production through Apple, but at least we got this treasure of a film at all.
The Velvet Underground is on Apple TV+ now.