Todd Haynes’ ‘The Velvet Underground’: Film Review | Cannes 2021

The filmmaker dives deep into the story of the influential rock ‘n’ roll band led by Lou Reed and John Cale and the creative ferment of 1960s New York City that spawned them in this documentary for Apple.

Todd Haynes understands the assignment and then some in The Velvet Underground, his exhaustively contextualized appreciation of the band that is as much a part of the cultural imprint of 1960s New York City as Andy Warhol’s Factory, a creative hub with which they were inextricably linked. It’s no accident that one of the first talking heads to appear in this electrifyingly structured doc is avant-garde cineaste Jonas Mekas, to whom the film is dedicated. Making ingenious use of split-screen, experimental montage and densely layered images and sound over two fabulously entertaining hours, Haynes puts his distinctive stamp on the material while crafting a work that could almost have come from the same artistic explosion it celebrates.

Premiering out of competition in Cannes ahead of its Oct. 15 release in theaters and on Apple TV+, this exciting evocation of a time and place is certain to be one of the standout music docs of the year. Echoes of Haynes’ glam-rock odyssey Velvet Goldmine and his idiosyncratic Bob Dylan bio-drama I’m Not There run through the film, as do nuggets of Warholiana like Chelsea Girls.

The Velvet Underground

The Bottom Line

Everything fans could want, and so much more.

Release date: Friday, Oct. 15
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Director: Todd Haynes

Rated R,
2 hours 1 minute

It also draws on literary influences that inspired Lou Reed’s songwriting, among them Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Ginsberg, Burroughs and Hubert Selby Jr.; he wanted to create the equivalent of their prose in rock music. In the breadth of its observations about the restless creative energy of the time, Haynes’ film is as much a sweeping study of a radical art movement as a behind-the-music exploration of one great epochal band.

The archival research that went into the project must have been a massive task, but much of the key material comes from the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Black-and-white, portrait-style footage of Reed and fellow VU founder John Cale, shot by Warhol — who required them to remain silent, not to smile and to blink as little as possible — provides a mesmerizing motif as observations from the two of them and others who were part of the scene play simultaneously in audio and filmed interviews.

Film critic Amy Taubin, a frequent presence at the Factory, says of the Warhol Silents, “It was all about extended time.” Haynes and editors Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz use that temporal porousness in subtle ways to erase the usual historical/analytical distance of pop-culture docs and instead create something more stimulatingly immersive and wildly trippy.

In theory, this should be a skewed assessment of the band given that Reed, guitarist Sterling Morrison and enigmatic occasional guest vocalist Nico have all passed away, leaving only erudite musicologist Cale and delightfully straight-talking drummer Maureen “Moe” Tucker to provide hindsight perspective. But the simple fact that someone in the Warhol entourage was almost always filming means there’s ample representation both of core members and of other artists, friends and musicians in their orbit. Some of the most hilarious recollections come from Factory superstar Mary Woronov, who danced with the band at some performances, including the Warhol-produced Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows that helped establish them.

The eternal debate over Warhol’s actual contribution to the work of artists in his stable is wryly addressed in discussions of the Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut album with Nico. Warhol’s banana print adorns the front cover and he receives producer credit, but Cale explains that he was the producer only insomuch as he was in the studio breathing when the record was being made. Still, the band’s association with the Factory burnished their reputation, landing them gigs at art events and museums even when commercial and critical success for their raw garage sound remained elusive.

Warhol’s pairing of Nico with the band is remembered as an imposition at first, but it’s acknowledged that her cool beauty and Andy’s cover art pretty much secured the record deal. This reportedly irritated Reed because Nico could not hold her pitch, but Cale eventually figured out what to do with her unpolished voice.

Reed emerges from Haynes’ film as a brilliant but prickly creative force. Frequently high or ill, he was determined to become a rock star even if the expressiveness of his lyrics wasn’t matched at first by equal assurance writing music. His pre-fame life, his history of depression and panic attacks and his experience of electroconvulsive therapy are discussed by his sister, Merrill Reed Weiner, who refutes her brother’s belief that his parents agreed to the treatment to suppress his homosexual urges. However, the doc is not the first source to indicate the ambiguity of Reed’s sexuality back then, when he was penning dark, homoerotic poetry and playing regular gigs with teenage bands at the Long Island gay bar Hayloft, about which he said: “They’re just a really cool bunch of people.”

The birthplace of the VU is largely traced to the Lower East Side apartment at 56 Ludlow Street where Reed and Welsh transplant Cale shared a loft, while hanging out at the same bars as not just Warhol but also Edward Albee, Jasper Johns, Jack Smith and experimental filmmaker Tony Conrad. It seems indubitable that Cale’s more formal musical education sharpened Reed’s songwriting skills, exposing him to the experimental influences of John Cage, Erik Satie and La Monte Young, among others.

One amusing section recaps the VU’s awkward foray into the far more domesticated West Coast music scene. Woronov recalls them hanging out by the pool at the Tropicana Motel all dressed in black and sticking out against the locals: “Everybody was very healthy.” She says they despised the hippies and the whole “flower power” ethos. The distaste apparently was mutual; their underground vibe failed to impress Fillmore West promoter Bill Graham who told them before they went on: “I hope you fuckers bomb.”

Cale is wonderfully forthright about internal frictions within the band, not least his own frequent conflict with Reed, which seems typical of groups with dueling charismatic leaders. His insights into the speedy, angry, amphetamine-fueled second album are tinged with melancholy, each member trying to drown out the others. This also coincided with the crash in relations between Warhol and Reed, which appears to have prompted Nico to walk away. Cale describes her as a wanderer: “She wandered into the situation, then she quietly wandered off.”

But there are also refreshingly upbeat insights from people like Jonathan Richman of The Modern Lovers, who idolized the VU as a high school music geek; he breaks down the complex layers of their recordings and talks effusively of their generosity, letting him hang out and even open for them. Richman nails one of the key virtues of the VU sound — their bare-bones approach eschewed added instruments or session musicians, recording nothing that couldn’t be reproduced on stage.

The changes to the lineup, including Cale’s departure, are covered in just enough detail to lend real pathos to the final blow of the increasingly disillusioned Reed’s abrupt exit following a 1970 show at Max’s Kansas City. But Haynes’ film fully captures the blazing flash of light represented by the VU’s relatively brief moment of glory, yielding a legacy in inverse proportion to their patchier success while they were actually recording and performing. Songs like “Sweet Jane,” “Candy Says,” “Sunday Morning,” “Venus in Furs” and “I’m Waiting for the Man” are now undisputed classics, and the band is widely recognized for its transgressive influence on the punk and new wave music movements that followed.

In his statement in the press notes, Haynes cites Brian Eno’s famous quote: “The Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one went out and started a band.” The director also speaks from his own sensibility as a queer artist about the assertion of marginality that the decidedly untamed band represented. The beauty of his film is the way it harnesses all these multifarious aspects and ties them into the very New York City-specific cultural landscape of the time, in much the same way Patti Smith did in her emotionally transcendent memoir, Just Kids.

The wealth of archival photography and footage of news and cultural events that shaped the era is extraordinary. Haynes’ use not just of clips from the work of Warhol, Mekas and Smith, but also Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren, Marie Menken, Barbara Rubin, Shirley Clarke and others — often playing in mind-bending juxtaposition on multiple screens within the screen — makes this an uncommonly cine-literate music doc and a rapturous homage to experimental art. Mekas says it all in one succinct interview snippet: “We are not part of the counterculture. We are the culture.”

Full credits

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production companies: Apple Original Films, Polygram Entertainment, Federal Films, Motto Pictures, Killer Films
Distribution: Apple/Apple TV+
Director: Todd Haynes
Producers: Todd Haynes, Christine Vachon, Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements, Carolyn Hepburn, David Blackman
Executive producers: Michele Anthony, Danny Bennett, Pamela Koffler, John Sloss
Director of photography: Edward Lachman
Editors: Affonso Gonçalves, Adam Kurnitz
Archival producers: Wyatt Stone, Bryan O’Keefe
Music supervisor: Randall Poster

Rated R, 2 hours 1 minute