Todd Haynes’ latest film is a documentary on The Velvet Underground, who are arguably the most important and influential band of all time. Haynes is a logical choice, given his track record of making loose biopics of musicians such as David Bowie, Bob Dylan and Karen Carpenter, and as a filmmaker with his own queer sensibilities. He had actually already used aspects of Lou Reed’s life in his film Velvet Goldmine, with the composite character Curt Wild, who is an amalgam of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. The reference to electroshock therapy to cure the character’s homosexuality is a clear reference to Lou Reed’s own experiences, which he wrote about in his song “Kill Your Sons.” This is addressed in the film, with Lou’s sister Merrill essentially acknowledging it but reluctant to talk more.
The documentary is as much about the band as it is about New York City at the time. It’s just as interested in the world that the Velvet Underground came out: the avant-garde world of film and music, Warhol’s factory, and the gay bars that Reed would frequent as a teenager (often with his girlfriend!) and would sometimes play at with R&B bands. Haynes deliberately has the story of The Velvet Underground be told through the music and the avant-garde films of the time instead of solely relying on interviews to push the narrative. The film does have talking-head interviews with surviving members John Cale and Maureen Tucker, and uses archival interviews with Reed and Sterling Morrison (both of whom passed away long before the film went into production), but it’s a musical/visual experience. Doug Yule, who was Cale’s replacement after he left, contributes a rare audio interview. Haynes also brilliantly decided to not include any critics or musicians influenced by them to say how great/influential the Velvet Underground were—instead, it’s simply people “who were there,” bar one short audio excerpt from a David Bowie interview.
Haynes has always made films about society’s outsiders, and one of the strongest aspects is showing just how ostracised from society they were. There is a brilliant moment about when they go to the West Coast, and their mutual contempt for the hippies (and vice versa.) Notorious concert promotor Bill Graham told the band “I hope your fuckers bomb” as they went on stage for the first and last time at the Fillmore West. It just showed the failings of the hippies’ peace and love mantra, because the hippies just saw them as these homosexual freaks all clad in black. The straight people in the band and their posse, like dancer and later cult movie actress Mary Woronov, felt so ostracised by the very straight West Coast counterculture they might as well have been “homosexual.”
For some reason, The Velvet Underground found a receptive audience in Boston, Massachusetts (even more so than their native New York City), and the heartbeat of the film is the interview with Jonathan Richman, who would go on to form The Modern Lovers (John Cale would produced their only album). His excitement and passion for the band hasn’t diminished a half century later. There is a scene with Richman that somewhat mirrors the scene in Velvet Goldmine where Brian Slade (the David Bowie character) comes out as bisexual on TV in a press conference and Christian Bale’s character goes “that’s me! that’s me!” Richman recounts “these people would understand me” were the first words out of his mouth when he heard the first Velvet Underground album, and instantly traded the guy his album by The Fugs for it. I can’t think of another filmmaker who perfectly depicts an outsider finding their tribe through art/music/whatever better than Todd Haynes does in those two incredibly short sequences.
With The Sparks Brothers and Summer of Soul, 2021 has been a great year for music documentaries, but none really push the medium forward. The Velvet Underground does, with such extensive use of split screen it would make Brian De Palma blush—there is rarely a single image on the screen at one time. The sound design is brilliant, and tries its best to make you hear why The Velvet Underground are/were so revolutionary in terms of their music. Their album came out the same year as what was deemed at the time as the most revolutionary album sonically ever, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and it’s not question of which has aged better.
The film also doesn’t gloss over the poor treatment of women at the Factory and Lou Reed’s own abusive nature, but rather than doing this in some revisionist fashion, it just tells the truth without being sensational. The film also gives Sterling Morrison his due as the truly great guitar player he was, and shows how integral he was to the sound of the band. The only real criticisms are that their years after John Cale left the band deserved more time than roughly 30 minutes of the film, there should have been something on Angus MacLise’s brief tenure as a early member of the band, and it takes over 40 minutes before you actually hear the Velvet Underground’s music.
Would The Velvet Underground have “made it” without Andy Warhol’s encouragement, or would they have been just been a another band on a Pebbles compilation? who knows, but the documentary makes a compelling case that the New York of the early ’60s are what put this doo-wop-loving queer Jewish boy from Long Island and this classically trained Welshmen obsessed with drones together to create some of the best music ever made.
Thank god Criterion got this from Apple+ so it can have a Blu-Ray release! The commentary track is from Haynes and the film’s editors Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz. You get outtakes from the interviews sJonathan Richman, Jonas Mekas, and Woronov. Haynes and musicians John Cale and Maureen Tucker in conversation with writer Jenn Pelly in 2021 and complete versions of some of the avant-garde films featured. The teaser trailer and also you get annotations for the film itself to identify all the avant-garde films do you can track them down yourself finish off the on disc extras. Greil Marucs fittingly writes the essay in the booklet.