Todd Haynes directs a dazzling documentary about the seminal 60s art-rock band.
To listen to the Velvet Underground today is to marvel at how very much its own thing it was. Their droning, dirge-like songs, often accompanied by the discordant squeaking of a viola, addressed such unsavory subjects as drug addiction and sadomasochism, and seemed to be designed for listeners who neither identified with hippie folk or rebellious rock and roll. They were so far ahead of their time that even more than five decades later no one else has sounded quite like them yet. Todd Haynes’ documentary, just called The Velvet Underground, captures their lightning in a bottle moment in music history, eschewing the tropes of the genre in favor of a dizzying sound and visual landscape.
To put it plainly, The Velvet Underground was doomed from the start. It was founded by Lou Reed, a sexually confused New Yorker with a chip on his shoulder and a love for doo wop music, and John Cale, a wry Welshman known for playing an Erik Satie composition on piano for 18 hours straight. While Reed wanted to be a rock star, Cale wanted to play weird, utterly unmarketable music. What they managed to create, however, along with the addition of guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Moe Tucker, was, for better or worse, like nothing anyone had ever heard before. It was poetic, it was personal, it was off-putting, it was oddly beautiful, and no one knew what to make of it.
Andy Warhol, as always several steps ahead of the curve, adopted the group as a sort of house band for his Factory, taking them on tour and encouraging them to go even weirder and less accessible (despite Reed’s protests that this wasn’t how one achieved rock stardom). Helping them secure a recording contract, Warhol believed that what the band needed was a female singer, and suggested Nico, a German model who, unique for a singer, couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. With that same strange sort of kismet at work, however, Nico’s odd, almost baritone vocals helped rather than hindered their already strange sound. By the time their first album came out (which Cale refers to as “the banana album”), press buzz had the Velvet Underground as the next big thing.
And then they went nowhere.
Oh sure, we appreciate The Velvet Underground now. But in their time they got almost no radio airplay, and no help from their record label. By the next album, 1967’s White Light/White Heat, Nico and Warhol were gone, and an attempt at a somewhat poppier sound was met with a similarly indifferent audience. Then Cale was gone, and after two more albums the band was dissolved completely. Though Reed went on to a successful solo career, and The Velvet Underground are now considered one of the most influential bands in rock, punk and experimental music, Haynes focuses entirely on when it was supposed to be their time in the spotlight as a group, allowing the audience to become fully immersed in their sound, and in their world, to hypnotic results.
The most important thing you need to know about The Velvet Underground is that it isn’t your typical band documentary. There’s not much dirt shared, and very little time is present on the usual “behind the music” cliches. Drug abuse is mentioned, but not really explored, and the closest thing we get to romantic drama is an off-hand comment about Reed being in a sort of love triangle with Nico and Warhol. Though Cale goes a little bit into the composition process, we don’t learn much about the lyrics, other than that Reed was inspired by Baudelaire and Beat poetry. Even if Reed were alive to participate, given his well-documented prickly nature, he probably would have been averse to explaining such things anyway.
So, if you watch The Velvet Underground hoping to learn something new about the band, you may come away disappointed. On the other hand, if you’re just looking to vibe on some excellent music that still, even in the 21st century, doesn’t sound like anything you’ve ever heard before, while performance footage, art film clips, Warhol’s work (including strangely arresting static shots of the band members gazing impassively into a camera), and imagery of the times flash, undulate and crawl across the screen. Often incorporating split screens, it feels like one would imagine being at a Velvet Underground show was like — unnerving, inexplicably sexy, and absolutely exciting.
Because of its reliance on a thrumming score and frenetic visuals, The Velvet Underground deserves to be seen on as big a screen and with as crisp a sound system as possible. Though it seems like we’ve long had our fill of “the sixties were great, maaaan,” Haynes does make it look effortlessly cool, in a way that simply will never happen again. Thanks to social media, “weird” no longer has any real meaning, and if anything, is aspirational. The misfits are able to find enough people like them that they’re not misfits anymore.
The Velvet Underground premieres in theaters and on Apple TV* October 15th.