The photo of Nico driving a tour van is worth the price of admission alone. That pic of the German actor/model who briefly loaned her haunting, daunting vocals to the Velvet Underground's 1967 debut album aside, Todd Haynes's The Velvet Underground is loaded (pun intended) with striking images, montages, transitions, and structural quirks that mess with over-familiar music documentary tropes. And, praise be, Haynes tapped no outsiders to contribute their sincere but unfulfilling platitudes, like 98.6 percent of all music docs have done throughout history. The Velvet Underground is a two-hour no-bullshit zone in which even long-time fanatics will learn things about and witness new images of this most revered of cult rock bands. Haynes's handiwork may not be the best way for neophytes to see the light about the Velvet Underground, but it's fitting that he created an artwork that aligns with hardcore VU fans' sensibilities.
Anyone who watched Haynes's biopic of Bob Dylan, 2007's I'm Not There, or the 1987 short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story could've anticipated that this doc would skew toward unconventionality. The phrase "blink and you'll miss it" came to mind often. Haynes homages avant-garde filmmakers Andy Warhol and Jonas Mekas with frequent split screens that sometimes multiply to 12 tiles while also weaving in super-imposed images. It's impossible to absorb everything, so multiple viewings may be necessary to grasp the references and allusions fully.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Haynes said, "It was our hope that the film would be led by the images and the music, not the interviews, and that you'd leave feeling like you almost dreamed the words and the stories." Consider that hope realized, at least with this viewer. Many times during its two-hour duration, I wondered, "What the hell is happening?"—but more so in pleasant surreal disorientation than in annoyance. As mentioned, further exposures will likely diminish the confusion the initial encounter induces.
Necessity partially swayed Haynes to take a non-traditional approach. Despite being an important and influential band, the Velvet Underground were not filmed in concert nor interviewed on film. This absence forced the director to take a more circuitous route to manifesting the artistic milieu in which they flourished, primarily through VU contemporaries such as Warhol, Mekas, and Jack Smith's cinematic experiments. (The former's screen tests of Lou Reed and John Cale recur throughout.)
The Velvet Underground does a great job exploring Reed and Cale's early lives and creative exploits, with interviews with the former's pre-VU bandmates yielding many details about the ambitious songwriter's prickly personality and foibles. Speculation about Reed's homosexual proclivities surfaces more than once, including discussions of poems he wrote at Syracuse under the tutelage of Delmore Schwartz. Cale, still sharp and articulate in his 70s, provides many of the film's most perceptive insights, including this one about the origins of the Velvet Underground: "There was always a standard to be set: how to be elegant and how to be brutal."
Cale also opened up about his own horrible childhood, and one of the film's nicest surprises shows the piano prodigy on the television show I've Got a Secret years before he joined VU. Cale and Reed formed a devastating creative team for two albums, taking rock to unprecedented extremes lyrically and sonically. Their unique chemistry evolved from seemingly opposite ends of the musical spectrum: Reed's doo-wop fandom and stint cranking out novelty tunes for the budget label Pickwick versus Cale's studies of minimalist, drone-based composition and avant-garde pedigree. Ultimately, though, they were both too headstrong for the partnership to last very long. Cale, surprisingly, still seems a bit salty about the circumstances of his forced exit. Haynes includes the voice of late VU guitarist Sterling Morrison opining that Reed was jealous of Cale, which seems plausible. Drummer Maureen Tucker praised Doug Yule for having his own distinctive harmonic talents, but said, "Nobody could replace Cale."
Haynes rewardingly devotes time to minimalist composers La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, and Tony Conrad, with whom Cale played in the mid-'60s, emphasizing the importance of drones in the Velvet Underground's early recordings. The film also rightly delves into Warhol's Factory scene—of which dancer/actor Mary Woronov contributes observations here—and the iconic artist's role in VU's story: He inspired their creativity, suggested they bring Nico into the group, and conceptualized spectacular multimedia performances that drew unlikely eminent spectators such as Jackie Onassis, Rudolf Nureyev, and Walter Cronkite.
One could quibble with the short shrift given original VU drummer Angus Maclise (who probably deserves his own doc), Cale replacement Doug Yule (who now lives in Seattle), and the third and fourth Velvet Underground albums on which Yule played (everyone ignores the Lou-less fifth one, Squeeze, so we'll let that pass). One might also wonder about the absence of input from Exploding Plastic Inevitable dancer Gerard Malanga, who co-wrote the 1983 VU biography Up-tight, a crucial source of photos for the documentary. Finally, a minute-long montage dealing with Reed, Cale, Tucker, and Nico's post-Velvets works and VU reunion shows seems hasty; perhaps a whole other doc should be made about those exploits.
But overall, the movie's interviewees, most of whom had direct contact with VU or at least saw them perform, cogently fulfill their roles as first-hand witnesses to musical history. (Nico collaborator Jackson Browne's cameo is unexpected, but not unwelcome.) Special mention must go to Modern Lovers frontman Jonathan Richman, a VU superfan who claims to have seen the group perform 60 or 70 times in Boston. Richman's invaluable insights electrify the screen with the same breathless excitement that his best-known song, "Roadrunner," elicits.
In the film's last dozen minutes, Haynes gets factual, providing details of the members who've died and offering thumbnail bios of the interviewees and main characters—nicely set to a seldom-heard 1972 live version of "Heroin," featuring a reunited cast from The Velvet Underground & Nico. It's very affecting. The end credits roll to "All Tomorrow's Parties," which turns out to be Haynes's most predictable move. Really, though, no other VU song is better suited for trudging out of the theater or to your home's bathroom than this rueful dirge.
Too dour for flower power, too cynical for peace and love, and too in thrall with black clothing to fit in with the burgeoning West Coast psychedelic scene, the Velvet Underground pushed an aesthetic of decadence, chemical and sexual experimentation, and visceral, vulnerable lyrical expression that made most other rock bands seem jejune. The thousands of emulators Reed and company spawned only serve to spotlight how phenomenal the originators were. Haynes makes a strong case for that outlook with methods that are as radical as the band he's documenting.
The Velvet Underground is now streaming on Apple TV+.