Velvet Underground Documentary Breathes New Life Into a Beloved Band

What more is there to say about the Velvet Underground? The original New York City punks invented a type of troubled coolness that has inspired every generation of weirdos since, to the point where their iconic image often precedes their music. Someone whose life was decidedly not saved by rock’n’roll could buy a Velvets T-shirt at Target and just think it’s “that Andy Warhol banana.” Any project about the band comes with the weight of these expectations, but in The Velvet Underground, director Todd Haynes is undaunted by the legacy. His holistic approach to documentary-making is akin to hearing the band’s music with new ears, suddenly attuned to more subtle frequencies.

Haynes has an impressive track record of making provocative films that cut through the mystique of musical icons. His 1987 short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story used Barbie dolls to paint a portrait of the tragic pop singer, 1998’sVelvet Goldmine put a Citizen Kane spin on the ’70s glam-rock scene (with details cribbed from Bowie and Bolan), and 2007’sI’m Not There posed the unlikely question: What if six famous actors channeled different sides of Bob Dylan to make the most interesting biopic ever? The Velvet Underground is not so blatantly deconstructivist. The film follows a relatively chronological narrative, beginning with the origin stories of VU’s core lineup (Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Moe Tucker), escalating with the release of 1967’sThe Velvet Underground & Nico, and concluding with the band’s dissolution and Reed’s solo career in the early ’70s. But for the most part, Haynes is unconcerned with capturing a definitive vision of the Velvet Underground. Instead, he uses them as a springboard to create a moving visual tribute to New York’s experimental art scene of the 1960s.

This approach was partially out of necessity. Warhol, who served as VU’s early manager and benefactor, was an obsessive documentarian of the world around him, and yet very little traditional footage of the band exists. There are clips of members lounging around the Factory and plenty of photos, but the band was rarely filmed performing.The Velvet Underground solves this problem by utilizing other artwork from the era. There’s so much to see here, with Haynes’ team reportedly licensing two-and-a-half hours of moving images for a two-hour film. The frequent use of split-screen places new interviews with Cale, Tucker, and others in conversation with the work of contemporaries like photographer Stephen Shore, godfather of American avant-garde cinema Jonas Mekas, and the “daddy” of minimalist music, La Monte Young. A curated crash course in mid-’60s art history, the film returns the band to its original fine art context. The most poignant use of archival footage comes via Warhol’s screen tests, the silent video portraits in which subjects were asked to sit still and not blink. The result is profoundly poetic: As Reed’s sister, Merrill Reed Weiner, describes her brother’s unsettled youth, a 20-something Reed gazes back, staring into the void of his own discomfort.

Warhol saw the band as a vehicle to combine music, art, and film into one big multimedia extravaganza and dreamed up the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a series where the Velvets played alongside dancers, performance artists, video projections, and a spectacular light show. But the Factory’s emphasis on appearance, according to film critic Amy Taubin, who posed for Warhol, created a “damaging” environment in which women were celebrated for their outward image, not necessarily their talent. That attitude inspired Warhol to add an attractive German singer and actress named Nico to the band, against Reed’s wishes. (“The group needed something beautiful to counteract the kind of screeching ugliness they were trying to sell,” Factory filmmaker Paul Morrissey oncesaid). Of course, Nico got the last laugh and proved herself to be far more than a muse. While these points are (hopefully) familiar to anyone who has studied Warhol and his scene, they deserve repeating considering how often the Factory is romanticized.

The Velvet Underground finally ventures outside the New York bubble when the band visits Los Angeles in 1966. With their glowering expressions and slim, all-black outfits, the Velvets stood in stark contrast to the whimsical flower children who preached all that “love peace crap,” as Tucker delightfully snarls in the film. “We hated that, get real.” Cale offers a more considered theory of their philosophical differences: The hippie scene avoided “how important danger was,” he says. “If you’re off in that world, you don’t recognize danger for the value it has.” Flirting with danger was the Velvet Underground’s natural way; they took their name from a paperback book about sexual taboos, and their early songs frankly mentioned sadomasochism, drugs, and addiction. The music itself thrives when drone, distortion, and detuned guitars coalesce into a violent uncertainty that bursts into transcendence. As Cale puts it in the film, “There was always a standard that was kind of set for how to be elegant and how to be brutal.”

Cale is, for the most part, The Velvet Underground’s narrative guide. When the documentary reaches his 1968 departure—like Warhol, he was fired by Reed—the tone of the film shifts: The Velvets’ final albums fly by, and suddenly the band is kaput. But it is the absence of Reed that looms the largest. He only speaks on camera once, in a 1973 conversation with Warhol. A notoriously prickly interviewee, Reed said very little about the Velvet Underground in the decades preceding his 2013 death. One can’t help but wonder what the film would be like were he alive and willing to participate. But Haynes refuses to play armchair psychologist: He understands that his subjects are complex and does not attempt to push the viewer towards firm answers. This is especially compelling in the film’s handling of Reed’s queerness, which has long been complicated by allegations that he underwent electroconvulsive therapy as a teenager in order to suppress his sexuality. (Reed’s sister suggests that the reality was more complicated.) While the film doesn’t dig too deeply into this subject, discomfort and queerness are themes that keep popping up.

The Velvet Underground’s ability to explore these uncomfortable ideas was what drew in Haynes as a listener, way back in college. “This band was describing something else, other paths that should be taken and places that don’t always feel great,” he said in a recent interview. “That through levels of feeling displaced or marginalized or even having contempt directed toward you—there’s a certain strength that a person can gain about asserting oneself in the face of that.” InThe Velvet Underground, this point is best espoused by the Modern Lovers’ Jonathan Richman, who attended an astonishing 70 VU shows as a teenager: “The first words out of my mouth [upon hearing them] might have been, ‘These people would understand me.’” Even in a film filled with core members and Factory players, the first-hand accounts that cut through are those that speak directly to the band’s ability to offer deliverance from outsiderdom. Haynes’ documentary is a labor of love in the purest sense: The Velvet Underground’s ability to emotionally connect across time and space speaks for itself.

From Pitchfork By Quinn Moreland

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