Directed by Todd Haynes, The Velvet Underground is a documentary film about titular avant-garde rock n’ roll band of the 1960s whose music was never commercially successful yet would lay the ground work for a lot of music in the years to come. The film explores the music and art scene they were in as they were the house band for Andy Warhol and his world where they would create four influential studio albums from 1967 to 1970 that never sold a lot of records but influenced so many. The result is a ravishing and exhilarating film about one of the greatest bands of the 20th Century.
Formed in 1964 by Lou Reed and the Welsh musician John Cale that would later include Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker, the Velvet Underground was a band that were part of Andy Warhol’s art scene known as the Exploding Plastic Inevitable as the band would also include the German model/actress Nico. Through four studio albums from 1967 to 1970, the band would make music that was considered dangerous, avant-garde, and extreme in comparison to the music in the American west coast as they were never commercial successful initially. Yet, the music they made as well as some of the solo recordings from Reed, Cale, and Nico would prove to be influential to many as it laid the ground work for punk, post-punk, alternative music, indie, noise-pop, and all kinds of music.
The film chronicles not just the band’s formation but also the art culture they were in that also included forms of art, cinema, and music as if it was a scene onto its own. Featuring interviews with surviving members John Cale and Maureen Tucker as well as Lou Reed’s sister Merrill Reed Weiner and Sterling Morrison’s widow Martha plus several of Reed’s childhood friends, actress Mary Woronov, musicians Jackson Browne and Jonathan Richman, music industry figure Danny Fields, film historian Amy Taubin, avant-garde artist La Monte Young, filmmaker John Waters, and experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas in one of his final interviews before his passing in January 2019. The film doesn’t showcase the art world as well as the emergence of avant-garde music in the 1960s that was prevalent in New York City. It also showed the background of its four core members with Reed and Cale being the two dominant forces as the former lived in suburbia following a move from the city as Merrill said it affected him emotionally. Cale was from a small town in Wales where he had a grandmother that hated the English and hated the fact that her daughter married an Englishman and Cale didn’t learn English until he was 7.
The film also talked about Reed’s struggle to succeed as he did have bits of minor success where, through audio archives, he claimed that the one royalty check he had for less than $3 was more than everything he made when he was with the Velvet Underground. Cale talked about how he met Reed and they were part of a band called the Primitives where they had local success in Long Island with a song called The Ostrich though it was clear that Reed wanted to do more as the songs he was writing were much darker such as Heroin. Cale would play a role in helping those songs develop even though he barely knew how to play bass and guitar as he was more accomplished in piano and viola with his classical background. The two would bring in Sterling Morrison whom Reed knew back in Syracuse while Morrison brought in Maureen Tucker after original drummer Angus MacLise left the group. Much of the film’s first half is about their formation and how they became part of Andy Warhol’s social circle where they were the house band at his home base known as the Factory.
The first half talked about how Nico came into the group as she was known largely as a model/actress that was part of Warhol’s circle as she was used mainly as someone the band could bring in to help give them visibility. Yet, Nico proved to be a vital contributor to the band despite only being in the band for nearly a year as she left wanting to do her own music and other things as her departure is what had the Velvets break up with Warhol though Cale admitted that he didn’t know about it and didn’t want to break from Warhol. Cale and Tucker revealed that the second album White Light/White Heat was made mainly from their experience on the road where they had some horrendous shows in California as the band admitted they hated the hippies and they hated Frank Zappa. Jonathan Richman saw the band during the shows promoting the second album as he met the band and was given guitar lessons from Morrison while also being aware of the tension that was happening in the band that lead to Cale’s departure in September of 1968.
The second half does cover the second album but also brief insight into the third and fourth album with Cale’s replacement Doug Yule who is only heard through audio interviews along with Morrison before his death in 1995. Notably as it play into Reed’s desire to be successful as well as the fact that the band did have a loyal following in the American east coast despite their lack of commercial success. The frustration over the lack of success as well as tension in the band eventually led to Reed’s departure while they wisely talk about the fact that the band lead by Yule and other musicians made one more album that many say isn’t a Velvets album and never should be considered to be a Velvets album.
Haynes’ direction is stylized in not just using a lot of the experimental films from that scene into some stylish montages with the help of editors Affonso Goncalves and Adam Kurnitz but also in showcasing rare footage from those shows the band played during the time. Some of the editing montages is played in the style of the avant-garde films from Mekas, Stan Brakhage, and Warhol where Haynes also showcase that world where the Velvets were part of this world that included whip dances with Mary Woronov and Gerard Malanga while there’s a bunch of films playing around them. The interviews are straightforward as they’re shot from 2017 to 2019 as Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman have the people in a room as they’re relaxed with Merrill doing a dance to The Ostrich as it adds to Reed’s genius as a songwriter as it made his sister dance.
Sound designer Leslie Shatz help cultivate many of the audio interviews as some came from other documentaries and such as it help tell the story but also in some of the sound collages including the demos of those songs by the Velvets. Music supervisor Randall Poster compile not just a lot of the music of the Velvets including the individual work of Reed, Cale, and Nico but also some of the avant-garde music that came before them from John Cage and La Monte Young as well as some of the rock n’ roll and classical music that Reed and Cale were into as well as some of the music in the Mamas & the Papas that the Velvets didn’t like. It all play into the world that the Velvets and Warhol came from and what Bill Graham was trying to present in San Francisco as the latter definitely seem to envy what Warhol did where Tucker stated that Graham just tried to ruin them.
The film also play into the impact the group had in the world of music but also through art following Reed’s departure as there were brief reunions in the early 70s such as a legendary show at the Bataclan in Paris with Reed, Cale, and Nico as the members kept in touch. Even though Andy Warhol died in 1987 with Nico following a year later, the band minus Yule reunited in 1993 for a successful reunion tour that was supposed to go to the U.S. only for tension between Reed and Cale ended things. Following Sterling Morrison’s death in 1995, Reed, Cale, and Tucker reunited for 1996 Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame as well as performing a tribute to Morrison. Reed would die in October 2013 leaving Cale and Tucker as the surviving original members along with Doug Yule.
Through the records they made, the Velvet Underground would prove to have a lasting influence in popular music as their debut album was inducted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2006. Musician/producer Brian Eno stated that when the album only sold 30,000 five years into its existence upon its release, those people who bought those 30,000 copies started a band as it proved the influence they would have on popular music. In 1991, the album was certified gold in the U.S. having then sold 560,000 copies proving that the band did indeed have an impact.
The Velvet Underground is a tremendous film from Todd Haynes. It is a documentary film that doesn’t just cover one of the greatest and influential bands of the 20th Century but also the art culture they were from as well as the individuals who made the band so special. It’s a film that does sort of play by conventions in terms of its narrative yet the presentation is anything but conventional as it play into the spirit of what made the Velvet Underground so unique in their time. In the end, The Velvet Underground is a spectacular film from Todd Haynes.
Todd Haynes Films: Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story - Poison - Dottie Gets Spanked - Safe (1995 film) - Velvet Goldmine - Far from Heaven - I'm Not There - Mildred Pierce (2011 TV Miniseries) - Carol - Wonderstruck - Dark Waters (2019 film) - The Auteurs #3: Todd Haynes
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