The Velvet Underground, Todd Haynes’ non-fiction portrait of the avant-garde rock titans, isn’t as overtly unconventional as I’m Not There, his 2007 take on Bob Dylan’s life that featured numerous actors playing fictionalized variations on the singer-songwriter. Nonetheless, there’s bracing uniqueness to the director’s latest, which employs a striking formal style to recount the origins, glory days, and implosion of one of the 20th century’s most ahead-of-their-time musical acts, whose grungy beat-poetry lyrics, severe sonic experimentation, and non-conformist attitude paved the way for innumerable subsequent bands (and helped inspire Haynes’ own Velvet Goldmine). Wielding familiar elements in thrillingly novel ways, Haynes crafts a documentary that doesn’t strive for comprehensiveness and yet feels, at heart, like the definitive version of their story.
Premiering at the New York Film Festival in advance of its October 15 bow in theaters and on Apple TV+, The Velvet Underground enlists the participation of neither critics nor outsiders; rather, Haynes’s documentary is narrated by the band members themselves—guitarist and singer Lou Reed and guitarist Sterling Morrison in posthumous audio interviews, and bassist and violist John Cale and drummer Maureen “Moe” Tucker in new chats—as well as colleagues, collaborators and friends who were along for the band’s rise to greatness. Well, okay, maybe not rise, since the Velvet Underground only achieved their legendary status in the years following their 1970 breakup. But everyone involved here was a part of the group’s magical (if relatively short-lived) tenure, which came about due to a combination of good fortune, unlikely kinship, and an environment tailor-made for their brand of spontaneous creativity.
In a 1960s New York City that had become a gathering place for radical artists from around the world, Long Islander Reed and Welsh-born Cale found each other at 56 Ludlow Street, a Lower East Side haven for the burgeoning counterculture scene. Their partnership first resulted in a band called the Primitives, which soon morphed into the Velvet Underground, which in turn led them to Andy Warhol’s art collective, The Factory. There, paired with German singer and model Nico, they served as the de facto house band, eventually spearheading Warhol’s wild Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia spectacular. In a milieu where pushing boundaries and making commercial art were equally important, the Velvet Underground discovered an ideal home for their groundbreaking music, marked by Cale’s dissonant droning and off-the-beaten-path impulses (modeled after the work of La Monte Young) and Reed’s tender melodies and daring lyrics about homosexuality, transgender characters, orgiastic sex and drugs.
As Cale says in The Velvet Underground, the band’s trick was figuring out “how to be elegant and how to be brutal,” which perfectly sums up their landmark debut LP The Velvet Underground & Nico. Boasting Warhol cover art (of a banana), the album was largely ignored upon its release but has since come to be hailed as an innovative masterpiece, and Haynes conveys its power by blasting many of its roaring tunes over an amazing collection of archival material. Only rarely depicting talking-head interviews, the film opts for a bold collage-like structure in which old photos and footage of the band rehearsing, performing and working at The Factory are presented without matching audio; instead, they’re accompanied by narrated commentary from various speakers, as well as tracks from the band’s oeuvre. With much of that visual material also presented in split-screen fashion or via hyper-kinetic montages, the effect of Haynes’ approach is to create an immersive, borderline-dreamlike descent into the Velvet Underground’s world.
Far from alienating, The Velvet Underground’s subtle disconnect between sound and image feels directly attuned to the band’s avant-garde music, surrounding us on all sides with different aspects of their artistry. Haynes relates key particulars from the band’s history but proves more interested in imparting a sense of the group’s idiosyncratic attitude. Epitomized by their initial, iconic all-black outfits and matching sunglasses, the Velvet Underground were the decidedly abrasive and renegade antidote to the hippie-ish era in which they operated, and Moe amusingly makes clear how they felt about the flower-power period when she states, “This love-peace crap—we hated that.” Confrontational and angry, and yet also wounded and lyrical, they were a band with one foot on the grimy street and the other in ethereal planes.
After an even more aggressively disharmonious sophomore effort (1968’s White Light/White Heat), Reed famously forced his bandmates to choose between him and Cale (they went with the former), and while The Velvet Underground dutifully charts the group’s ensuing evolution with new bassist/singer Doug Yule, the film seems a lot less concerned with the back half of their catalog—1969’s self-titled The Velvet Underground and 1970’s swan song Loaded—than in their seminal early output. That’s probably to be expected, given the legacy of the group’s classic line-up. However, in light of Haynes’ in-depth treatment of the Velvet Underground’s nascent stages, there’s something ever-so-slightly frustrating about the abruptness with which he covers these later moments, especially since The Velvet Underground and Loaded contain some of Reed’s finest pop-rock tunes.
Still, as with the best music documentaries, The Velvet Underground not only delivers anecdotes and concert clips but captures the overarching spirit of its subject and the cultural stew from which it sprang. Just as Reed and Cale were immensely fortunate to have found each other—their instincts and musical tastes clashing and meshing in a singular manner—so too was the Velvet Underground lucky to have developed a relationship with Warhol, who gave them the freedom and opportunity to indulge their every pioneering, improvisatory whim. As Haynes’ film underscores, The Velvet Underground & Nico would have undoubtedly been a far different record if Warhol hadn’t assumed the role of producer and, in doing so, shielded them from potentially meddling voices. At the same time, it celebrates Reed and Cale as distinctive visionaries, all while also exuding admiration for Nico, whose short-lived but memorable stint with the band illustrated her own talent and ambition.
Haynes ultimately skims by Reed and Cale’s solo careers and the band’s eventual reunions, as if to bequeath such topics to future documentarians. From start to finish, his tremendous The Velvet Underground maintains strict, loving, celebratory focus on the band’s brief and brilliant heyday—a revolutionary run to which Haynes pays fittingly inventive tribute.