The Velvet Underground really were at the centre of it all. In the 1960s, New York City saw an explosion of art, film, and music – all of which blended with one another in a stunning swirl of ecstatic creativity. Artists from all over the world accumulated in the city’s East Village and began building new forms of expression that, today, have come to define our understanding of contemporary culture. What is art without Andy Warhol? Or poetry without Alan Ginsberg? But, as Todd Haynes examines in his new documentary about the legendary art-rockers, it seems that the world did everything in its power to actively avoid The Velvet Underground. It’s for that reason that, for such a long time, even the most surface chronicling of the band’s life has seemed beyond the realms of possibility. The assumption has been that there simply isn’t enough footage, nor enough members left alive to give anything verging on a definitive re-telling of The Velvet Underground’s story. Well, as it turns out, you don’t need reels and reels of band rehearsal footage to make a good music doc. All you need is honesty.
The Velvet Underground is certainly honest. For those hoping for yet another celebration of the immortal genius of Lou Reed, I’ve got some bad news for you. While Haynes’ film follows the well-travelled talking heads format, where interviews are cut with raw footage to slowly unravel the story of The Velvets, there’s a refreshing absence of ego. Haynes has chosen only the frankest and most revealing interviews for his final cut, many of which feature Lou Reed’s friends and family making plain what we’ve all known for a long time: Mr Reed was indeed a bit of a dirtbag. But Haynes pushes further still. He refuses to examine Lou Reed, or The Velvet Underground for that matter, with the aim of coming to some neat, all-encompassing theory behind their chaotic and destructive energy. Instead, his film embraces all the complexities of Reed and his band without attempting to make sense of them. Like the Velvet’s song ‘Venus In Furs’, Haynes film seems to say: “This is what you’re getting. It’s ugly, but it’s alive.”
Haynes documentary proves remarkably successful in tracing the origins of The Velvet Underground’s flower power-melting sound. With the help of John Cale’s knack for near-perfect recall, we are given an extensive portrait of the musicians early life in rural Wales, where he harboured an ambition to be a conductor, before moving to New York to attend the Tanglewood Music Centre to study music composition and starting to experiment with the possibilities of sound.
This fascination led him to work closely with the avant-garde artist and composer Le Monte Young, whose extensive work with drones directly informed Cale’s approach to writing for The Velvet Underground. Haynes explores some of The Velvet’s in more detail than others, seeming to regard Moe Tucker and Sterling Morrison as less worthy than the likes of Reed and, indeed, Andy Warhol, who – as Haynes slowly reveals – had far more control over The Velvet Underground than you would expect. Bringing the group under his control in 1965, Warhol dictated everything from what The Velvets wore to the shows they performed.
The influence of the pop artist proves to be one of the most compelling aspects of The Velvet Underground, revealing how the gradual absorption of the avant-garde into mainstream society was practically inevitable with such a rampant capitalist as Warhol at the helm. Unfortunately, Haynes glosses over some of the more troubling aspects of Warhol’s world. The way the whole scene venerated male genius while valuing women such as Nico, Amy Taubin, and Mary Woronov purely on their looks is one of the few details of the ’60s New York art scene that is still to be touched upon in much depth. And yet, Haynes seems to merely acknowledge that – yes, being a woman was indeed hard – before moving on quick as a shot. Still, The Velvet Underground is an enthralling watch, featuring an astonishing array of unseen footage and confessional interviews that shed smatterings of light on one of rock’s most enigmatic bands.