Todd Haynes’ Velvet Underground Documentary Is A Vivid Portrait Of A Transformative Band
When the Velvet Underground performed around New York in the 1960s, they weren’t the most popular band. “They had this off-putting aura, you know? Yikes, they were scary,” says Martha Morrison, guitarist Sterling Morrison’s wife, as she remembers one of their concerts at Cafe Bizarre for Todd Haynes’ new documentary, The Velvet Underground. Then, actress Mary Woronov’s jaw drops as she remembers the night that they came to Andy Warhol’s Factory in all black attire and performed “Heroin” early on in their career. The screen flashes from a stop motion concert footage montage to a dimly lit basement, marked by mannequin legs hanging from a thread and the silhouette of a curvy vintage couch. The laid-back opening strums of “Heroin” hum underneath images of gyrating hips and audience members. Gradually, one panel becomes two and the images become more and more distorted, all in-time with the music’s increasing pace and increasingly uncertain lyrics.
If VU were a polarizing force in their day, the band’s influence on music has been palpable ever since. “I knew that we had a way of doing something in rock ‘n’ roll that nobody else had done,” violist John Cale says. Haynes — whose other ventures into the music world include the glam-rock tribute Velvet Goldmine, the experimental Bob Dylan portrait I’m Not There, and an upcoming film about Peggy Lee — sets out to demonstrate just how momentous this band was. His efforts amount to a captivating look at the Velvet Underground that leaves a lot of their legacy implied rather than spelled out.
The film follows the trajectory of the band from its inception in the mid-1960s to its eventual dissolution late in the decade. But before diving into the many characters that were part of the band and the art scene it arose from, the film details the early lives of singer-songwriter Lou Reed and Cale, dissecting their dissimilar musical influences and how their eventual pairing would give the Velvet Underground its singular sound that meshed avant-garde and rock styles into one. It uses snippets of archival footage and interviews to tell the story, leaning on blurry montages as storytelling devices — a go-to for Haynes. Band members like percussionist Moe Tucker and Cale give lengthy interviews, as does singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman and Lou Reed’s sister, Merrill Reed-Weiner, to go alongside the footage.
What Haynes does best throughout the film is match the tone of the shapeshifting clips that appear on screen with the band’s experimental sound and fast-paced lifestyle. He uses a split-screen to showcase the simultaneous influences that came into play in the Velvet Underground’s work, highlighting both their genre-blending music and the thrill of the era. The film takes on a variety of themes, some of which are regular explorations for Haynes — eroticism and sexuality, the band’s and Reed’s eternal search for identity — but the most prominent is the Velvet Underground’s relationship with the New York art scene of the 1960s. It shows how Warhol’s The Factory became their regular haunt, how they met Nico and many of the talking heads in the documentary itself, how eventually leaving Nico behind changed their relationship with Warhol. Haynes doesn’t linger on the question of the Velvet Underground’s popularity, though. Rather, he seeks to uncover how the band came to be and why it still matters today.
In every part of the film, New York functions as an artistic mecca for the band. But nowhere is that alignment with the city more evident than when Haynes peppers the screen with nostalgic downtown New York imagery — fire escapes and red brick buildings, dingy basements and dirty streets. Eventually, that cold-colored, fast-paced footage is contrasted with the hippie surfers of California, who have flower crowns and golden light for miles. The Velvet Underground despised them. To this day, Tucker still holds a vitriolic distaste for that culture: “This love peace crap, we hated that. Get real,” she says. “Everybody wants to have a peaceful world and not get shot in the head or something, but you cannot change minds by handing a flower to some bozo who wants to shoot you.”
But even more than Tucker’s disdain for hippies, Haynes’ musical choices throughout the film showcase how New York’s avant-meets-rock culture loomed large over the band. Beneath the psychedelic action on screen is a thoughtful placement of sound that highlights the variety of influences within the Velvet Underground’s best-known songs, Lou Reed’s distinctive speak-singing vocal tone, and the common search for identity that hums through many of the band’s lyrics. It’s easy to say the Velvet Underground took influence from the experimental music scene that was popping up in downtown New York at the time — a scene inspired by the indeterminate work of composer John Cage and the delicate repetition and drone music of composers like La Monte Young — but the film actually shows the interwoven threads of rock and classical in the Velvet Underground’s music, linking their songs with experimental ideologies through sound and visuals.
In Cale’s interviews for the documentary, he explains his interests and experiences with experimental music in New York throughout the ’60s. Cale had found a home in New York’s experimental music world, making music with La Monte Young and drone musician Tony Conrad. He details how he became fascinated by drone music, which explores how sound grows and changes over time. La Monte Young dissects this music, too, explaining how frequencies affect the brain. On screen, flashing lights, neon-colored soundwaves, and images of the city smash into each other in a clever depiction of New York culture, and a long-held tone wavers underneath the imagery. Later on, these drones morph into Cale’s strung-out viola lines on “Venus In Furs” and “Heroin” to showcase precisely how his interests influenced the sound of the Velvet Underground and to allow the music to tell its own story.
While the film leans in to explaining the music of the Velvet Underground, it shies away from the band’s controversies. Reed’s electroshock therapy, and the unanswered question of his sexuality, are themes peppered throughout the film. But questions aren’t necessarily answered — with Reed departed from this Earth, it’s probably a good decision not to delve too deep. And Cale, who is open throughout the film, doesn’t divulge too much information about his exit from the band. His voice cracks as he remembers the painful day when the band called him and told him he couldn’t play with them anymore, but it’s just a blip. The same goes for Nico’s departure, and Warhol’s departure, too. By leaving controversy to the imagination, Haynes is only able to paint one part of the picture. There’s still so much left off the screen, so much we’ll likely never know.
As Haynes shows the band’s eventual demise and breakup, he picks the pace right back up by noting the solo albums each artist produced in their careers. It’s an attempt to show their outsized impact. But for a film that devoted so much effort early on to analyzing the music, we’re left with very little explanation of how the band’s sound ended up shaping so many others — this despite an abundance of examples over the past half-century that could have proven how influential VU really were. It’s a rushed moment, one that skirts around the band’s sonic impact in an attempt to tie a neat bow on their story.
The last few minutes of the film transcend that rapid-fire penultimate act. “Heroin” rings out one last time, this time accompanied by archival concert footage. After watching turmoil and success and uncertainty unfold over two hours, its lyrics take on a new meaning: “I don’t know just where I’m going / But I’m gonna try for the kingdom, if I can.” The Velvet Underground couldn’t have predicted how their music would be a flicker that keeps burning decades later, but they sure as hell wanted it to. We may never know their whole story, but perhaps their music says enough.
The Velvet Underground premieres 10/15 in theaters and on Apple TV+.