Todd Haynes’ Velvet Underground documentary is the definitive portrait of rock’s influential outsiders
The Velvet Underground
Dir. Todd Haynes
In a world where hairspray chauvinists Mötley Crüe end up with a flashy biopic and a bestselling biography, it’s a crime that the Velvet Underground, probably the greatest and most influential rock band of all time, have only now been honoured with a feature-length documentary, 53 years since their debut album. It’s a sick culture we live in.
Director Todd Haynes has had his eye on the project for years, and it’s hard to think of a better hire for this tale of avant-garde superstars, pop iconoclasts and queer outsiders whose lives “were saved by rock’n’roll”. It’s his first documentary, but Haynes has previously tackled glam rock (Velvet Goldmine), mid-century lesbian love (Carol) and unhinged rock biopic (I’m Not There, starring Cate Blanchett, among others, in the role of Bob Dylan).
He approaches the Velvet Underground story with more reverence, as a chronological retelling of the band’s short life after forming in the white-hot art scene of 60s New York. Steered into the studio by patron and puppet-master Andy Warhol, the band that made the classic “banana album” was an unlikely combination: Lou Reed, the prickly Jewish boy from Long Island failing to make it as a pop songwriter with his strange ditties about heroin; John Cale, the Welsh piano prodigy studying the metaphysical properties of drone; Sterling Morrison, the guitar hero who’d get a doctorate in medieval literature; Nico, the wraithlike European beauty; and Maureen Tucker, a woman playing drums. Now that’s a motley crew.
Despite being lensed extensively by Warhol’s circle, there’s little live footage of the band in their prime. Haynes deftly papers over the gaps with a split-screen technique which juxtaposes talking heads (including John Waters, Jonathan Richman and Reed’s sister Merrill) with clips from old TV shows, 60s experimental films and Warhol’s disarming “screen test” portraits.
After some lengthy backstory, Haynes zips through the four years in which they produced four classic albums, each one setting a new benchmark for the emergent genre of Rock (hold the roll) while steadily shedding members until the death knell of Reed’s departure in 1970. (There was one more Velvets album, but the less said about Squeeze the better.) The band’s creativity was rivalled only by their conflicts. Cale and Tucker, the only band members still living, talk admiringly of Reed as a stubborn despot, but at least he wasn’t into all that “peace and love crap,” spits Tucker, still disgusted by the hippy counterculture that was the natural enemy of New York’s nocturnal speedfreaks.
For the hardcore there’s not a significant amount of new information, but it’s intriguing to hear Reed’s sister deny that her brother had been forced into electroshock therapy as a teenager in an attempt to “cure” him of his homosexuality. Reed’s other acquaintances (and fans) know this story as a pivotal event in his life. Someone must be lying, but Haynes doesn’t mind who.
The film also glosses over the finer details of how these strange and timeless songs came to be, particularly after we’ve left the glamour of the Factory and the initial novelty of Cale and Reed’s conjoining of pop and the avant-garde. Had the film been made even ten years ago we could have learned something from Reed himself; Morrison, Nico and Warhol are all long dead. For those reasons there’ll never be a better or more definitive VU documentary, and it’s a joy to bask in the charisma of Warhol superstar Mary Woronov and the puppy-dog enthusiasm of Jonathan Richman. The Modern Lovers frontman saw the band dozens of times in their brief heyday, and the memory of it lights him up like a Christmas tree. When he describes the long, stupefied silence that greeted the end of every marathon version of Sister Ray, it’s as transportive a moment as any faded photograph or archive reel.