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Review: The Velvet Underground

Kyle Boulton explores Todd Haynes' avant-garde documentary on '60s alt-rock pioneers

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Image Credit: Apple Original Films

As the apocryphal quote goes, “The Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one started their own band”. What follows is a chain of influence that continues to this day. Although their sound is most clearly heard in the genres of punk, glam, goth, and garage rock, the Velvets have never really left cultural consciousness. Personally speaking, the band introduced me to a world of music I had not yet encountered at the age of 16 - a love that had me donning a banana shirt for the ensuing years of adolescence. Thus, my learning of Todd Haynes’ documentary was met with both scepticism and excitement.

Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back (2021) has recently demonstrated that documentaries can be an auteurist endeavour. Whilst the director is restricted to a particular focus, they also have the chance to make their own stamp on history, channelling the creative or social intricacies of their subject into the documentary form. Thankfully, Haynes - as a scholar of American cinema - does just this in The Velvet Underground.

Despite their immeasurable influence on rock music for generations to come, there remains a degree of obscurity surrounding the self-professed “hippie-hating” pioneers. In order to explore their legendary status, Haynes carefully positions the group within the wider context of New York’s avant-garde scene in the 1960s. The same movement is given equal focus by the director, as reflected in the subjects interviewed. From the living encyclopaedia that was Jonas Mekas, to a single interjection by David Bowie, all the way to TVU-obsessed frontman of The Modern Lovers, Jonathan Richman, a vivid picture is painted of what it meant to exist within this electrifying epoch.

Haynes impressively condenses the group’s history into a tight 120-minute runtime that never overstays its welcome, but arguably sidelines their later work in favour of the “banana album”. I’ll return to this criticism later; but for now, it’s worth noting how Haynes navigates the archival material and one-to-one interviews that traditionally comprise the documentary format. Rather than taking a linear approach, Haynes toys with its formal elements, replicating the experimental methods of New York’s avant-garde in the process. Through shifting aspect ratios - 1:1, split-screen, collage - Haynes keeps the viewer on their toes, playing with the group’s visual image in fascinating ways. In the introductory half-an-hour, Lou Reed and John Cale’s screen tests with Andy Warhol are shown on the right-hand side of the screen, while the left-hand shows the environments that comprised their upbringing. Here, Haynes develops upon the psychoanalytic properties of Warhol’s tests, which are aptly comparable to Cale’s sonic experiments at the time. Namely, the idea that in “extending time”, a note of music or in this case, the image itself, can be exhausted of every possibility.

These formal intricacies are not only a love letter to the avant-garde movement depicted but living proof of its effect. Cinephiles will also appreciate the ways in which cinema, art, and music are interwoven throughout. In a moment of brilliance, Reed’s cadent vocals in ‘Venus in Furs’ are given visual explication through the act of strip-teasing in Kenneth Anger’s 1963 short film, Scorpio Rising. Haynes posits an unlikely connection between the two, wherein sadomasochism projects ideological liberation from the norm. A similar link is created between ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ and the veiled figure of Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) whose face comprises a reflective mirror. In the same way that cinema is actively influenced by its history, so too is music.

With that said, Haynes’ documentary film is at its most compelling during the opening hour. A mesmerising narrative is presented from the band’s inception to the sonic experiments conducted under Warhol’s creative influence. This changes, however, when Nico and Warhol leave the picture and the focus turns toward the second album - White Light/White Heat (1968). Due to the abruptness of this transition, the viewer is left wanting more; problematising it further is the way in which White Light is documented. From the Cale-fronted ‘Lady Godiva’s Operation’ to the infamous 17 minute ode to orgies that is ‘Sister Ray’, some fans have found more reward in the band’s second experiment. It is therefore disappointing that Haynes leaves much of its history unexplored, focusing instead on the personal rift between Cale and Reed. Although it is fascinating to hear Cale’s version of events, the documentary perpetuates a historical problem surrounding the Velvets in which later albums have become inextricable from the group’s personal divides.

The same applies to the self-titled album (1969) and their final release as a united outfit, Loaded (1970). Doug Yule replaced Cale for these releases, and although the documentary suggests he has a few technical tricks of his own, he remains sidelined to the margins of history. Nonetheless, there are wonderful moments to be found, such as when drummer Maureen Tucker explains how fan-favourite ‘After Hours’ came into existence. If only ‘The Murder Mystery’ - a nine-minute epic where the four members vocals are divided into two separate audio channels - received the same treatment. As for Loaded, Haynes takes an easy approach - depicting it as a collection of well-crafted songs that laid the foundation for Reed’s solo work, such as Transformer (1972).

As a visibly frustrated Warhol suggests during his screen tests, “you don’t have to do anything… just what you’re doing”. The same ethos is what originally made The Velvet Underground trailblazing punk pioneers, with their trippy odes to heroin, orgies, and shady pickups reflecting a state of existence long detached from the contemporary. Although the band received considerable critical and cultural acclaim in the years since 1967, they remain something you have to get. Haynes not only gets the group's appeal but actively channels their influence into the documentary’s presentation.

Editor’s Note: The Velvet Underground is available on Apple TV+

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