“There was always a standard that was kind of set for how to be elegant and how to be brutal,” says John Cale in Todd Haynes’ documentary The Velvet Underground. He’s referring to his collaboration with Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed, but it perfectly describes the group’s modus operandi during those influential early years when they were fully immersed in New York’s downtown music scene of the 1960s. Cale’s minimalist background meshed surprisingly well with Reed’s rhythm & blues stylings, and that musical combination provided the necessary foundation for the latter’s unconventional, taboo-inflected songwriting to flourish. Together they laid the groundwork for a band that filtered the avant-garde through rock ’n’ roll and cast a long shadow over 20th-century culture, inspiring countless musicians and artists, even if it took some time for everyone they influenced to catch up.
Cale’s statement also rings true for The Velvet Underground, which chronicles the band’s short-lived run by eschewing many traditional conventions of the music documentary. Instead of a purely band-focused archival approach (an impossibility considering there’s relatively little footage of The Velvet Underground on stage) or a more formulaic Behind The Music-style history lesson, Haynes tries out a collage-like method that tells the Velvets’ story while evoking the warm, unsettling feeling of listening to their music.
The sound design, courtesy of regular Haynes collaborator Leslie Shatz, incorporates so many different elements—full Velvets songs alongside edited fragments, interview voice-over, foley cues, and archival material—that it envelops the viewer in a three-dimensional audio space. Through this tactic, Haynes pulls off an amazing trick by making classic, potentially overplayed songs like “I’m Waiting For The Man” and “Heroin” sound fresh and downright frightening. For anyone who chooses to stream The Velvet Underground on Apple TV+, headphones are a must. But those with the opportunity to see the film in a theater should grab it, because it’s best experienced on the loudest possible sound system; the first few notes of “Venus In Furs,” aired at the very beginning, will rattle your entire body.
Haynes employs a similar approach to The Velvet Underground’s visual style. He excavates the cinematic dimension of the band’s sound by drawing from the aesthetics of the mid-century experimental art scene where the Velvets initially thrived. For example, Haynes employs split screen, à la Chelsea Girls or Andy Warhol’s other dual projection work, to constantly keep the eye busy. One side of the frame frequently features talking-head interviews, shot on grainy 16mm, with a small core of Velvet associates, including surviving original members Cale and drummer Maureen Tucker, experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas (to whom the film is dedicated), and an enthusiastic Jonathan Richman, founder of The Modern Lovers and Velvets aficionado. The other side contains associative imagery from a variety of sources: archival material of the Velvets; clips from commercials and news broadcasts, footage of countercultural luminaries; assorted excerpts from the work of experimental filmmakers Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, and Marie Menken; and Warhol’s Screen Tests of the band (and other notable Factory figures, such as film critic Amy Taubin).
Subsequently, The Velvet Underground is as much a portrait of an artistic movement as it is the story of the eponymous group. In fact, it takes over 50 minutes for Haynes to get to Warhol actually meeting the band. He uses that time to appropriately contextualize the group within an experimental tradition, exploring Cale’s involvement with the Theatre Of Eternal Music, an avant-garde group fronted by La Monte Young whose lengthy drone-based improvisation proved to be influential not just on the Velvets but across the entire art scene. Haynes connects this to downtown filmmakers’ experimentation with duration—like Andy Warhol’s silent short film “Kiss,” which features a series of couples kissing at sustained intervals—as well as Reed’s literary influences, such as poet Delmore Schwartz and the ’50s Beat writers.
The Velvet Underground demonstrates that the band was a multi-disciplinary affair, drawing from all strands of culture, absorbing artistic ideas outside of their own lane. Haynes potentially risks alienating the uninitiated by declining to expound upon certain individuals and movements, but his trial-by-fire tactic has purchase. For one thing, it mirrors the experience of artists and audiences on the ground, who were also expected to keep up despite operating with various degrees of knowledge.
Of course, Haynes dutifully covers the major aspects of the Velvets’ story, all of which are common knowledge for fans but nevertheless presented here with aplomb. The Velvet Underground primarily focuses on the first four years of the group, from Cale and Reed’s first collaboration in the band The Primitives through Warhol’s crucial involvement with the group (his public notoriety, his choice to bring German singer Nico on board for the first album, and his famous banana cover design are basically why the Velvet Underground were a known property) and Reed’s choice to dismiss Cale from the band so that they can move in a more commercial direction.
Haynes does cover the Velvets’ second act, including the hiring of Doug Yule and their appropriately anticlimactic dissolution. But he does so in a hurried, and-then-this-happened way. This passage is a bit of a disappointment compared to the visual feast that comes before it, but it thankfully takes up a relatively small period of the film. Anyway, Haynes makes a smart move to close the film with the band’s breakup, relegating the numerous solo albums and subsequent life events to montage. Per the film’s title, The Velvet Underground is the story. Period.
It’s telling that Haynes never acknowledges Brian Eno’s famous, oft-misquoted line about the Velvets’ first album, how it “sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years…[but] I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” Maybe he leaves it out because we’re living in a culture that has fully absorbed the group’s influence, and such a description no longer applies to a once-cult act whose iconography can now be bought at H&M. Instead, Haynes attempts to expand upon manager and publicist Danny Fields’ casually hyperbolic insight that, “You need physics to describe this band at their height. It had entropy within it.”
Haynes’ previous work explored mid-century rock music in unconventional ways: His Velvet Goldmine was a ’70s glam-rock version of Citizen Kane, while kaleidoscopic Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There cast six different actors, including Richard Gere and Cate Blanchett, as the legend. Here, Haynes simply uses the tools at his disposal to get the job done. Ultimately, he captures the inspiring spirit of The Velvet Underground, a band built on the principle that marching to the beat of your own drum is a righteous, rebellious artistic act.