The Velvet Underground
Director: Todd Haynes
Todd Haynes’ brand new documentary that is simply called “The Velvet Underground” started streaming on Apple TV+ over the weekend.
John Cale’s abrasive viola strikes filled the room. A split-screen and black and white. I’m sold already.
So, as I watch The Velvet Underground, I’m thinking about being a teenager on holiday in Mt Maunganui when I walk into a hybrid music/surf-clothing store and buy a copy of the VU’s Loaded as my first CD. And I’m thinking about how Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart from 1998 (which I saw at the Paramount during one of the first Film Festivals I ever attended in Wellington) was probably good enough anyway, right…
I’m thinking, too, about how I never got to see Reed play, but in 2007 I flew to Auckland overnight to catch a John Cale solo gig. And it was worth it just to hear him perform Venus in Furs. And how I looked over at one point and saw Chris Knox and Roger Shepherd in the audience, looking like they were there to worship. And how that made total sense. And made the gig even more enjoyable.
This is what I’m thinking as the documentary starts. A few minutes in and my mind is whizzing through the Cale biographies (and autobiography) I’ve read, all the Lou Reed books, the Nico books, and the Warhol stuff – how my total understanding of Andy Warhol as 20th Century Figure is shaped through my understanding of the music and impact of The Velvet Underground. And how the quote attributed to Brian Eno around not many people buying the first VU album but everyone that did started a band might be one of the things that got me super-interested in Brian Eno; he’s now one of the most important shaping influences on what I listen to.
The song European Son is on a loop in my head some days. Hearing that at the end of the first VU album blew the bloody doors open. Its charming racket was, at first, an anomaly – but on second, third and then every listen after, it’s been the signpost for another way of musical thinking.
So I’m hearing European Son in the doco – even when it’s not playing.
And I’m also thinking about all of the magical work I’ve loved by Todd Haynes. How he’s the type of filmmaker where I’m even intrigued by his missteps. There are misfires he’s made that I still want to spend time with – I don’t think he nailed Velvet Goldmine at all, doesn’t mean I didn’t want to see it. It took me absolutely years to get to I’m Not There. I only did that recently. I’m glad I (finally) did.
Those two films offer his fictionalised take on the worlds of glam and Bob Dylan, respectively. But the music-movie I loved most that came from Haynes’ mind was his appreciation of the Carpenters’ story: the 1987 short-film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story is a must to seek out. It’s 43 minutes long and features Barbie dolls to act out the story.
As far as I’m aware, The Velvet Underground is Haynes’ first full-length music documentary. And it’s not a subverted biopic, as with his previous musical offerings. It’s a rock doc – but it’s a rock-doc as art-film, as befits the band, the movement, the era.
Split screens and black and white footage and a cacophony of sounds bring to mind the New York of the mid-60s, the Soho boho art movement, the look and feel and grit of the music is there on screen. And of course, Haynes has the two surviving members of the Velvet Underground (Moe Tucker and Cale) on tape. They are there in fresh new interviews alongside a few key surviving Warhol/Factory alums.
But I reckon the masterstroke of this film, interview-wise, is putting Jonathan Richman – band uberfan – front and centre to tell his story. He is so enthusiastic, so sincere. And previously so media-shy, existing without social media presence and agreeing to interviews usually by mail correspondence only. Haynes is showing you what an uberfan he is by going and getting the band’s biggest, best-known uberfan and affording him the time and space he deserves.
So of course I’m now thinking about what a joy and thrill it was to see Jonathan Richman in concert (about five years ago).
The Velvet Underground is a band I always return to – and always will – because what I hear when I listen to those deep musical meditations is a band of idiosyncratic players that did not care about making a sale. They were making art. They didn’t want your approval. They didn’t want your fandom. They wanted to express the idea. Anything else was a by-product. And only if it arrived.
I take heart in that.
But Haynes’ film does get to exactly that heart. And it takes its sweet time to do so – focussing in on the making of the band-vibe as much as it ever does the making of individual records. It is a tone-poem in dedication to the band’s look and feel and flow. It is an art-film celebrating an era and ethos.
So in the last 20 minutes it flicks through the albums that followed and hints at the solo careers that continued – because we can get that information elsewhere if we don’t know it already. Haynes’ plan is to suspend us in a time and place. To celebrate the Velvet Underground for being and to capture it and hold it in that place.
He also shows us – without telling us – that the fire and fire battle of Reed and Cale was what truly drove the band. Haynes knows we probably know that going in.
So I sat watching this story of my “Weird Beatles” and was filled with so many side-line memories. And ready again to approach the music.
That’s what I want from a music documentary. I don’t just want every album or tour ticked off and footage of all of the stories I already know. I want to feel the music come alive and be taken to the place – the heart – the soul – of where and when and how it was formed.
In that sense The Velvet Underground is a triumph. One of the best movies about music you could ever hope to see. And it happens to be about one of the most important bands I’ll ever hear. And always love.