Todd Haynes’ ‘The Velvet Underground’ Paints a Hypnotic Portrait of One of Rock’s Most Influential Bands

Some artists alter the mold of an art form so deeply they not only define an era but endure well into the future. Filmmaker Todd Haynes‘ invigorating “The Velvet Underground” documentary is that rare work that truly does justice to its subject. It delivers a long overdue portrait of one of the most influential bands of all time, in sound, art and even fashion, by defying the traditional form of its genre. The Velvet Underground has always been identified with Andy Warhol’s the Factory and New York City’s avant-garde scene as the band that forefront of art rock. Their 1967 debut album, with singer, model and actress Nico, is one of the most recognizable covers of all time, with its yellow banana cover art designed by Warhol, who began managing the Velvet Underground early in their career. Haynes is in many ways a natural choice for this material. A director of visual richness, his films have been journeys into the past, with several of them defined by music. As a documentarian he tells the story of the Velvet Underground with an approach that transcends a chronicle, becoming vibrant, fierce art.

The story of the Velvet Underground frames much of the shifts a whole generation underwent in the ’60s. It begins with Lou Reed, who first came of age in a suburban Freeport, Long Island world defined by the bland conservatism of the ‘50s. Rock ‘n’ roll would capture his imagination and by the age of 14 Reed had sold his first record, although he admits in a recorded testimonial that his first royalties earned amounted to about $2.75. Reed also began discovering his sexuality, and would play at gay clubs which were relegated to the American underground. He gravitated to New York City, a vibrant center of all that was changing radically during the 1960s. The classically trained John Cale also landed in New York, soon to be influenced by experimental composers like La Monte Young. After a short-lived stint as the Primitives, Reed and Cale truly found their place when they came under the wing of Warhol and his Factory. The Velvet Underground would be formed as a blisteringly original avant-garde ensemble with an experimental, heroin chic sound, female drummer Maureen Tucker, and the now iconic Nico, which Warhol put front and center on the band’s debut album.  

“I suppose I could have said I wanted to do it as a dramatic film, but I didn’t. I was completely intrigued by the challenge. The creative juices started to flow because I did know this band doesn’t exist in the traditional places where you find material, like other bands,” Haynes told Entertainment Voice. Acclaimed for his technicolor melodramas about sexual repression in Eisenhower America, like the masterful “Far From Heaven” and “Carol,” Haynes has been notable for his unique eye for music history. His 1997 “Velvet Goldmine” was a wildly original take on the Glam Rock era. In 2007 he made “I’m Not There,” a surreal phantasmagoria about Bob Dylan featuring Cate Blanchett as the folk icon in one of its segments. Even in his days making shorts, Haynes first grabbed attention in 1987 with the eerie “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” told entirely with dolls and miniature “sets.” These films are all worth mentioning because they now look like a chart leading the way to “The Velvet Underground” and its hypnotic effect. 

Haynes and his team, which includes regular cinematographer Ed Lachman and editors Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz, structure the documentary like unchained filmmakers. They film interviews with former band members, relatives and fellow artists in the style of Warhol’s famous “close-up” films. Different formats are thrown around with split screens, stills and stock footage creating an enveloping feel. On the right side of the screen a subject speaks while on the left, images rush by. While Haynes is paying tribute to ‘60s experimental films like Warhol’s “Chelsea Girls,” he’s also creating a whole new work in this spirit. Why give such a unique band a bland approach? It would almost be a crime. The period footage choices are wonders to behold, from rare clips of models inside Warhol’s Factory to gorgeous photographs of Nico, Reed and that whole hedonist crowd that dared make art that felt completely new. “I knew we were going to do something that wasn’t the usual, just finding the link between this story and that story. It was going to be more interpretive, more subjective and more poetic,” said Haynes.

Impressively, Haynes explores what is necessary to tell a compelling, insightful story. Interview subjects include band members like Tucker and music critics like Amy Taubin. Actor Mary Woronov and Reed’s sister, Merrill Reed-Weiner also appear, seeming energized by revisiting these memories. The style never outdoes what we learn. As a band, the Velvet Underground produced a dreamy sound that could combine manic energy with absolute darkness. Cale’s strings could become screeching walls of sound and yet Reed could compose blissful pop when inspired, like “Sweet Jane.” Nico’s very presence had a special potency. It was a hedonist environment with a spirit akin to the old Romantics. Reed was a born musician, but he also brought with him a love for poetry, feeling the influence of the Beats and writers like William S. Burroughs. There was a side more unpleasant now in hindsight too, as when a subject admits women were still objectified in the Factory for their looks. There are also hints that near the end, the cracks in the band began out of threatened egos.

Haynes also focuses on the more acute aspects of why the Velvet Underground were so ahead of their decade. The world of the Factory and New York City was much more bohemian, open space than other corners of the country, yet what the band represented still carried a hint of danger. Reed’s own closet bisexuality no doubt fed the edge of some of the lyrics and music. “We always find these ways of historically organizing histories of minority experiences,” said Haynes. “We like to say ‘pre-Stonewall’ and “post-Stonewall.’ And this is absolutely a pre-Stonewall era and time. But that is hardly a way of minimizing its force, its confidence, its freedom of expression, especially in particular places, we’re talking about New York City, we’re talking about a very specific culture within New York City. And that’s one part of the story. But the other part is something inside this young guy, who’s coming out of the suburbs of Long Island in the ‘50s and has such a clear and kind of almost confidence.” Reed sought success, and would find it, but the authenticity of his art comes from an honest, deeper place. “At times it’s almost hostile how much he decides that this is what he wants to explore and these are the writers that interest him and if his father and mother show any kind of ambivalence towards him, his recourse was actually to act more switched, and minx around the house and act more ‘faggety’ in front of his parents. You’re like, wow, man, where did that come from? It’s something you can’t even locate in the times, because the times are saying, “there’s no way this is possible.”

All great eras end with triumphs and heartbreak. The Velvet Underground would eventually dissolve, and would reunite years later ever so briefly. Reed and Cale would go on to solo careers as impressive as their work together. Nico would die in 1988 in a bicycling accident. Guitarist Sterling Morrison, who passed away in 1995, would go on to become a college professor. Yet the music and look remain, just underneath the surface of the glossier forms of pop culture the Velvet Underground shattered. In an endearing moment, Maureen Tucker talks about the band disliking hippies and their absurd notions of peace and love, at a time when the Vietnam war was raging and America was experiencing race riots. Maybe that’s partially why the Velvet Underground endures, because unlike the broader musical styles of the counterculture era, their music still speaks to us, as does Nico’s contemplative, sad gaze. In that same vein, “The Velvet Underground” is a documentary about a culture, certain events, and an avant-garde New York City scene from half a century ago — yet it feels so alive.

The Velvet Underground” releases Oct. 15 on Apple TV+ and select theaters.