Todd Haynes’ ‘The Velvet Underground’ documentary is a kinetic, incomplete look at the iconic band
If ever there was dread in analyzing and reviewing a film, this is it. Thinking about The Velvet Underground documentary -- which rolled into this year's New York Film Festival after premiering at Cannes, and premieres today in NYC and on AppleTV+ and more theaters around the country on Friday (10/15) -- there are two reviews located within. One for the casual fans and uninitiated, and one for the true fanatics (of which this reviewer proudly has long been a part of). For the former, director Todd Haynes has made a hypnotic and dizzyingly kinetic portrait of a band that, even after years of study and analyzing, still remains as inscrutable as ever. Unfortunately for the latter, it doesn’t offer much in revelations and falls short of being definitive, due to some glaring omissions and continued slights of key figures.
Opening with a quote from the French poet Baudelaire, “Music fathoms the sky”, the film's first images are of one of the founding members of the VU, a young John Cale in 1963, freshly new to America from Wales, appearing on a TV show called I’ve Got A Secret. His secret: he had recently performed, along with composers such as John Cage, an 18-hour piano recital (the other contestant was the only one who had stayed for all 18 hours). From there, it's a whirlwind of images, cleverly using split screens, images from 16mm experimental underground films of the period, along with the screen tests created by Andy Warhol for his “superstars” to accompany their respective narrative voice-overs and the band's brilliant music.
For those who have been paying attention all these years, the story is a well known one. Cale arrives in NYC ready to explore the city's burgeoning avant garde scene, first hooking up with fellow like-minded artists including LaMonte Young and Tony Conrad, performing together as The Theater Of Eternal Music and The Dream Syndicate and eventually moving into Conrad’s apartment at 56 Ludlow Street, a flop house building teeming with other artists. At the same time, Lou Reed, having grown up on Long Island with a love of Doo Wop, drugs and trolling the city's underground gay nightclubs and the seedy underbelly for inspiration, finds himself a newly graduated Syracuse University english major and writing knock-off versions of hits for Pickwick Records. The two meet when Cale goes to work at Pickwick, and finding a commonality, Reed moves into 56 Ludlow and later on ropes in Long Island friends Sterling Morrison on guitar and Maureen “Mo” Tucker on drums.
From there, the oft told tales are recounted, from their association with Andy Warhol and his visionary ideas for the band, like storied multimedia events The Exploding Plastic Inevitable; Warhol bringing European actress/singer Nico into the fold for their iconic first record; their residency at the Dom, a Polish community center on St Marks Place; a disastrous tour of the West Coast; a fracturing between Warhol and Reed, who wanted to break out from being thought of as just a Warhol creation; and ultimately Reed and Cale fracturing as well, leading to a more “conventional” sounding version of the band.
Eschewing conventional talking head style interviews, The Velvet Underground's story is recounted through a roving cast of characters from the scene. Cale is given much screen time and there are plenty of previously recorded interviews with Reed. Mo Tucker, who is criminally underused in the film, throws off some feisty lines, especially ones directed at legendary promoter Bill Graham (who notoriously hated the band) and the West Coast hippies who the band hated. In a coup of sorts, and really one of the heartbeats of the film, is the great Jonathan Richman. As a Boston teenager at the time and completely enraptured by the band, he managed to ingratiate himself to them (he saw them over 50 times!!!) and was allowed access to their inner circle. His moments are pure joy as he uses his acoustic guitar to show what made these songs so special and unique. Arguably the most controversial comments in the film come from Reed’s sister Merrill Reed Weiner, a psychologist, who angrily explains away, though does not deny, the long told accusation that her parents used electro shock therapy on a teenage Lou in order to rid him of homosexuality and drug use. Her given reasoning being that at that time time there were really not many other choices or avenues available to people and they did the best they could.
What is disappointing about The Velvet Underground is not what is in it but what is not. When the film was announced, there was the assumption and hope that there would be much unseen footage, especially for a band that famously had very little documentation. Sadly this is not the case, as most of the photos and film of the band used here have all been seen before. Worse are the omissions, the most egregious of which is the continued short shrift given to Douglas Alan Yule. Yule has often been relegated to, and once again here, second tier throwaway status in the story of this band. A brilliant multi instrumentalist, Yule came into the band in 1968 when Cale left. He recorded first with them on the third self-titled album (that's his beautiful vocals on "Candy Says") and then on 1970's Loaded which has mostly Yule and Reed and contains the “hits” that most casual fans know. Yule’s contributions have been dismissed time and time again and here there are backhanded, derisive comments towards him by both Cale and Tucker. Is there a difference between the manic propulsive "Sister Ray" from White Light White Heat and Loaded’s gorgeous ballad "Oh Sweet Nuthin" (with a searing guitar solo by Yule not Reed)? Is one better than the other or more indicative of this band? That's a debate that lives on but one thing that's not in question is Doug Yule’s part in this band’s story, which is just as important as any of the other four members.
While ultimately I imagine this would have been a very different film if Lou was alive, maybe not made at all, there is much to like in this energetic and often electric documentary. Haynes' decision to take a very artful approach is fitting, as the Velvet Underground story is one that is anything but standard. The film's style also allows the band to stand out on its own merits rather than the usual humdrum as an accessory and connection to a larger scene going on at that time. The Velvet Underground were their own entity and one that fought hard to rise above their circumstances to make that claim. The most ardent though, i can only imagine, will be as disappointed as I was, for the mysteries still abound and the full story of one of the greatest bands in the history of recorded music has sadly yet to be told.
Watch the trailer below: