For years, I’ve dreamed of someone making a documentary about the Velvet Underground. They are, along with the Beatles and the Stones, one of the three flagship groups in rock’n’roll history. So they surely deserve to be captured and commemorated in a movie that does them justice.
There’s a reason we’ve never seen this movie. Whenever I approach the subject with connoisseurs, the explanation boils down to: “There are no images. What they mean is: there are random sequences and lots of photographs, but if you want to see the Velvets in their prime playing “What Goes On” or “White Light / White Heat” at a club in scorching rock, or get a taste of what it was like to see Exploding Plastic Inevitable (the band’s hypnotic chug-a-chug, psychedelic blobs and Warhol movies) at the Dom in New York in 1966, or see any large-scale concert clip that would let you experience the Velvets in a you-are-there way, that is, you’re out of luck, because these clips fundamentally do not exist. (It’s quite ironic considering that Warhol, the band’s mentor, was the first person to be known to film everything around him, but there you go.) The Velvet Underground, whose music was a haunting midnight trance, did had no radio slot, no commercials, no “media”, no behind-the-scenes Pennebaker or Maysles truth. The albums are here forever, but as a historical presence the Velvets can look a bit like a bunch of ghosts.
But now great director Todd Haynes has finally made a documentary about the Velvet Underground. It’s called “The Velvet Underground”, and it’s, among other things, a fascinating study of how necessity becomes the mother of invention. (The Velvets hated Frank Zappa, so no pun intended.) Haynes seems to have vacuumed every last photo and raw piece of family film and group footage of the band that exists and stitched it all together into a coruscating document that looks like a time-machine kaleidoscope. It takes inspiration from the underground films of the time, which were often dream documentaries, and it divides the screen into sections, presenting the main ones playing their words on the glittering black and white images of their screen tests. Warhol. Like a collage of the time, “The Velvet Underground” is dazzling: a hypnotic act of wire-frame editing. You can tell Haynes wants to get us as close to this group as possible, and if that means his whole documentary has to be some kind of poetic sleight of hand, then too bad.
Maybe it was inevitable. Yet the way Haynes shaped the film is not simply a question of cinematographic practicality. Haynes has always been drawn to underground stories and underground worlds: the shadow reality that shapes us. And in “The Velvet Underground”, since he cannot trust a conventional series of music videos and interviews of yesteryear, he comes to tell what he considers to be the great hidden story of the group: how they emerged from the depths of an underground America – the beatnik heart of the early 1960s and the avant-garde impulse that reshaped artistic culture.
The documentary opens with a quote from the French poet Charles Baudelaire (“Music probes the sky…”). He then presents a kinescope of John Cale, one of the two founding members of the group, when he appeared on the CBS game show “I’ve Got a Secret” in 1962. Cale’s secret is that he has gave a concert in which he performed the same piano piece over and over again for 18 hours. It’s a push for John Cage to grab the remote, but Cale, a very serious Welshman with a beautiful tuft of dark hair, was dedicated to making things happen. He arrived in New York City to create new waves of sound, and the film, with a respectful 16mm glow, chronicles how he moved into a legendary apartment at 56 Ludlow St., with filmmaker and performance artist Jack Smith and multimedia artist Tony Conrad. There are stories of how these people would spend part of the day listening to a long note: an extended drone. After a while they could hear its mystical connotations.
Cale meets Lou Reed, and the two become the yin and yang of the Velvet Underground. Cale was the radical saint and Reed, of course, the sinner of rock’n’roll: scowling, violent, mocking, pathologically insecure, charismatic to death, at one point, running his hand through glass so as not to no longer playing a concert on a boat that he didn’t want to do. The film interviews Reed’s sister, Merrill Reed Weiner, who takes us straight into the legendary story of how the parents of teenager Lou in suburban Long Island cleared his electroshock treatment because they wanted to shock his homosexuality. (She says that’s wrong.) But Reed frequented gay clubs, favoring hot and dangerous sex because he exploited his gutter rat bohemian side – the side that wanted to taste life in all its freedom and freedom. beauty. His literary heroes were Burroughs, Ginsberg, Selby and his friend Delmore Schwartz. He injected himself with heroin, but he also had pop music in his veins. (Just listen to “Sunday Morning” or “Who Loves the Sun.”) He got a job as a songwriter for Pickwick Records and knew he would be a rock star.
Lou the subversive bad boy of the guitar and Cale the debonair experimenter came together like an acid and a base. The drone Cale was listening to has become part of the Velvets’ DNA – you can hear it in the menacing saw viola of “Venus in Furs”, the majestic cacophony of “All Tomorrow’s Parties”. Yet, as great and defining as these songs are, it’s hard to shake the feeling that “The Velvet Underground” exaggerates the John Cale side of the equation. The film spends nearly an hour reveling in the bohemian New York soil from which the Velvets originated. If this was a four hour long doc (which the topic deserves) I could see it, but Haynes, I think, also sees John Cale as a metaphor for the “purity” of the band. Their first transcendent album, “The Velvet Underground & Nico”, is unthinkable without him, yet he is the one whose story feels organized around the documentary. And it’s not just because Cale (now 79, with flowing silver hair) is interviewed at length when Lou Reed, who died in 2013, couldn’t be. No, it’s like Haynes wanted the Velvets to be an art group even more than he wanted them to be a rock ‘n’ roll band.
As a Velvets fanatic, I dug into every moment of this movie and learned a lot from it. There are some great anecdotes about the politics of the Velvets’ relationship with Andy Warhol: he “produced” their album by doing nothing (other than creating the banana cover), but he allowed them to record it. It was Factory Foreman Paul Morrissey’s idea to bring Nico into the group, and Lou was not happy, but then Lou was never happy. Nico was in love with Lou, and Andy too. Haynes’ profession is never less than seductive, and the people he interviews – Jonas Mekas, Amy Taubin, La Monte Young – are vibrant witnesses of a singular era. The film makes you want to be in the Factory with them, speechless.
Still, there are a lot of things that are not here. Haynes interviews Maureen Tucker, who at 76 is stunted and charming, but how come the movie doesn’t spend a minute talking about her groundbreaking drums? She was leading the beat with a relentless tom-tom that was hypnotic, and it was unlike anything you’ve ever heard from a male drummer. Most importantly: I think Haynes is making a major mistake in creating a documentary about the Velvet Underground that does not contain any critical voices discussing the glory and mystery of their music and its place in our world. You can say, “Does a movie like this really need reviews? But if you look at, say, “Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film” by Ric Burns, it’s one of the greatest artist portraits ever made, and a lot of it concerns the transcendent analysis of who Warhol was. as an artist. Doesn’t the Velvet Underground deserve this? At the time, few of them had heard of it, but they changed the world, revealing just how rhapsodic the impulses we think of as punk, nihilist and transgressive can be.
The Velvets’ second album, “White Light / White Heat” (which I hate except for its title track), is seen in the film as an angry amphetamine frenzy of a record. But from there came the drama: Lou Reed fired John Cale, just like he had already fired Andy Warhol. It sounds like reckless Lou, and that’s certainly how the documentary presents it. But maybe Reed knew exactly what he was doing. He replaced Cale with Doug Yule, and together they made what I think was the band’s biggest album, “The Velvet Underground” (1969). It’s a masterpiece of religious street passion, but the film kind of touches it. John Cale eventually patched up his relationship with Lou, but in the film he casually mentions that he never met Doug Yule, whom the film is about to treat like hipster Ron Wood.
As the Velvets release their latest album, “Loaded” (1970), Haynes, to our surprise, puts the riffs on the soundtrack. (“You know his life was saved by… rock ‘n’ roll!“) in a way as standard as if it were a VH1 doc. to explore the music. It’s because he wants to brag about something about the Velvet Underground that he thinks is bigger than the music: their mythical side. It is perhaps the same spirit that a filmmaker like Haynes himself strives to maintain. But to treat the Velvet Underground, in 2021, as outsiders, is to keep them in a bubble of bohemian amber. They were taller than that. You can’t tell them apart anymore, for what they have done is open up the world to the dark majesty of their white light.
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