‘The Velvet Underground’ Review: Todd Haynes’ Music Documentary Is A Dazzling Historical Collage, but Not a Definitive Portrait

For years, I’ve been longing for someone to make a documentary about the Velvet Underground. They are, along with the Beatles and the Stones, one of the three seminal groups in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. So surely they deserve to be captured and memorialized in a film that does them justice.

There’s a reason we’ve never seen that film. Every time I’ve raised the subject with those in the know, the explanation comes down to: “There’s no footage.” What they mean is: There are random bits of footage, and plenty of photographs, but if you want to see the Velvets in their prime performing “What Goes On” or “White Light/White Heat” in a steamy rock club, or get a taste of what it was like to see the Exploding Plastic Inevitable (the hypnotic chug-a-chug of the band, the psychedelic blobs and Warhol films) at the Dom in New York City in 1966, or to see any full-scale concert clip that would allow you to experience the Velvets in a you-are-there, that’s-what-they-were-like way, you’re out of luck, because those clips basically don’t exist. (It’s quite an irony considering that Warhol, the band’s mentor, was the first person to be notorious for filming everything around him, but there you go.) The Velvet Underground, whose music was a mesmerizing midnight trance-out, had no radio niche, no publicity, no “media,” no backstage verité Pennebaker or Maysles. The albums are there for all time, but as a historical presence the Velvets can seem a bit like a group of ghosts.

But now, the great director Todd Haynes has, at long last, made a documentary about the Velvet Underground. It’s called “The Velvet Underground,” and among other things it’s a fascinating study in how necessity becomes the mother of invention. (The Velvets hated Frank Zappa, so no pun intended.) Haynes appears to have vacuumed up every last photograph and raw scrap of home-movie and archival footage of the band that exists and stitched it all into a coruscating document that feels like a time-machine kaleidoscope. He draws on the underground films of the period, which were often dream-play documentaries, and he divides the screen into sections, introducing the principals by playing their words off the flickering black-and-white images of their Warhol screen tests. As a collage of the period, “The Velvet Underground” is dazzling: a hypnotic act of high-wire montage. You can tell that Haynes wants to take us as close to this band as possible, and if that means his entire documentary is going to have to be a kind of poetic sleight-of-hand trick, then so be it.

A scrapbook of images that moves, “The Velvet Underground” immerses you in the band but still leaves them slightly out of reach. That may have been unavoidable. Yet the way that Haynes has fashioned the film isn’t simply a matter of cinematic practicality. Haynes has always been drawn to underground stories and underground worlds: the shadow reality that shapes us. And in “The Velvet Underground,” since he can’t rely on a conventional series of back-in-the-day music and interview clips, he resorts to telling what he sees as the grand hidden story of the band: how they emerged from the depths of an underground America — the beatnik heart of the early ’60s, and the avant-garde impulse that remade art culture.

The documentary opens with a quote from the French poet Charles Baudelaire (“Music fathoms the sky…”). It then presents a kinescope of John Cale, one of the band’s two founding members, when he appeared on the CBS game show “I’ve Got a Secret” in 1962. Cale’s secret is that he gave a concert in which he performed the same piano piece over and over again for 18 hours. That’s a stunt to make John Cage reach for the remote, but Cale, a deeply serious Welshman with a handsome shock of dark hair, was devoted to shaking things up. He arrived in New York to create new waves of sound, and the movie, with a reverent 16mm glow, tells the story of how he moved into a fabled apartment at 56 Ludlow St., along with the filmmaker and performance artist Jack Smith and the multimedia artist Tony Conrad. There are tales of how these folks would spend a portion of each day listening to one long note: an extended drone. After a while they could hear the mystic overtones in it.

Cale meets Lou Reed, and the two become the yin-and-yang of the Velvet Underground. Cale was the radical saint and Reed, of course, the rock ‘n’ roll sinner: sullen, violent, taunting, pathologically insecure, drop-dead charismatic, at one point shoving his hand through a pane of glass to get out of playing a gig on a boat he didn’t feel like doing. The film interviews Reed’s sister, Merrill Reed Weiner, who sets us straight on the legendary tale of how the teenage Lou’s suburban Long Island parents okayed his getting electroshock therapy because they wanted to shock the homosexuality out of him. (She says that’s untrue.) But Reed frequented gay clubs, favoring sex that was hot and dangerous because it tapped his bohemian gutter-rat side — the side that wanted to taste life in all its freedom and beauty. His literary heroes were Burroughs, Ginsberg, Selby, and his friend Delmore Schwartz. He shot up heroin, but he also had pop music in his veins. (Just listen to “Sunday Morning” or “Who Loves the Sun.”) He got a job as a staff songwriter for Pickwick Records and knew that he would be a rock star.

Lou the subversive guitar bad boy and Cale the debonair experimentalist came together like an acid and a base. The drone that Cale would listen to became part of the DNA of the Velvets — you can hear it in the ominous sawing viola of “Venus in Furs,” the majestic cacophony of “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” Yet as great and defining as those songs are, it’s hard to shake the feeling that “The Velvet Underground” overstates the John Cale side of the equation. The film spends close to an hour reveling in the New York bohemian soil out of which the Velvets sprung. If this were a four-hour, long-form doc (which the subject deserves), I could see that, but Haynes, I think, also views John Cale as a metaphor for the band’s “purity.” Their transcendent first album, “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” is unthinkable without him, yet he’s the one whose story the documentary feels organized around. And that’s not just because Cale (now 79, with floppy silver hair) is interviewed at length while Lou Reed, who died in 2013, couldn’t be. No, it’s as if Haynes wanted the Velvets to be an art band even more than he wanted them to be a rock ‘n’ roll band.

As a Velvets fanatic, I dug into every moment of this movie and learned a lot from it. There are great anecdotes about the politics of the Velvets’ relationship with Andy Warhol: He “produced” their album by doing nothing (except for creating the banana cover), but he made it possible for them to record it. It was Factory foreman Paul Morrissey’s idea to bring Nico into the band, and Lou wasn’t happy about it, but then, Lou was never happy. Nico was in love with Lou, and so was Andy. Haynes’ craft is never less than seductive, and the people he interviews — Jonas Mekas, Amy Taubin, La Monte Young — are vibrant witnesses to a singular time. The movie makes you want to be in the Factory along with them, gawking.

Yet there’s a whole lot that isn’t here. Haynes interviews Maureen Tucker, who at 76 is wizened and charming, yet how could it be that the movie doesn’t devote one minute to talking about her drumming, which was revolutionary? She drove the beat with a tom-tom relentlessness that was hypnotic, and that didn’t sound like anything you’d ever heard from a male drummer. More crucially: I think that Haynes makes a key mistake in creating a documentary about the Velvet Underground that doesn’t contain any critical voices discussing the glory and mystery of their music and its place in our world. You may say, “Does a movie like this one really need critics?” But if you watch, say, Ric Burns’ “Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film,” it’s one of the greatest portraits of an artist ever made, and a lot of that is about the transcendent analysis of who Warhol was as an artist. Don’t the Velvet Underground deserve that? At the time, few had heard of them, yet they changed the world, revealing how impulses we think of as punk, nihilistic, and transgressive could be rhapsodic.

The Velvets’ second album, “White Light/White Heat” (which I hate except for its title track), is written off in the movie as an angry amphetamine binge of a record. But out of that came drama: Lou Reed fired John Cale, just as he had already fired Andy Warhol. That sounds like reckless Lou, and that’s certainly the way the documentary presents it. But maybe Reed knew just what he was doing. He replaced Cale with Doug Yule, and together they made what I think is the group’s greatest album, “The Velvet Underground” (1969). It’s a masterpiece of religious street passion, yet the movie kind of brushes by it. John Cale ultimately patched up his relationship with Lou, but in the movie he casually mentions that he has never met Doug Yule, who the movie comes close to treating as the hipster Ron Wood.

By the time the Velvets release their final album, “Loaded” (1970), Haynes, to our surprise, is laying the riffs on the soundtrack (“You know her life was saved by…rock ‘n’ roll!”) in as standard a fashion as if this were a VH1 doc. But he doesn’t explore the music. That’s because he’s out to lionize something about the Velvet Underground he thinks is bigger than the music: their mythic outsider-ness. It’s the same spirit, perhaps, that a filmmaker like Haynes himself is working to hold onto. But to treat the Velvet Underground, in 2021, as outsiders is to preserve them in a bubble of bohemian amber. They were greater than that. You can’t set them apart anymore, because what they did is to open up the world to the dark majesty of their white light.

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