“It was an almost magical mistake.” That’s the late experimental composer and filmmaker Tony Conrad, heard via archival audio in director Todd Haynes’ new documentary. He’s describing the circumstances that brought together himself, the visual artist Walter De Maria, and the recent Welsh immigrant classical musician John Cale to back a druggy, ornery writer from the suburbs named Lou Reed in the early 1960s garage-rock group the Primitives. All they ever really produced was a novelty dance single called “The Ostrich” for a bargain record label. But this “mistake” set off a partnership that before long would lead Reed and Cale to form the Velvet Underground. None of the three slumming avant-gardists in the Primitives harbored the pop ambitions Reed did. The VU itself, also featuring guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker as well as various temporary members, failed extravagantly at attaining any such success. But as Conrad is heard saying later in the film, in their work, “Pop dissolved high culture. That’s what Lou brought in. That came bubbling out of Long Island, melting crystalline structures—which was just what we had had in mind.”
For at least four decades, discussions of the Velvet Underground have revolved around how this 1960s obscurity—a dark and culturally queer counterforce to what’s usually remembered of 1960s counterculture—became a far-reaching influence after the fact. Partly through their interlude as the house band of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene, the VU was formative to U.K. glam rock artists like David Bowie, to the proto-punk CBGB artists of the 1970s, to the new wave and indie-rock groups of the 1980s, and on through each succeeding wave of even quasi-arty rock. Last month saw the release of I’ll Be Your Mirror, the latest of many VU tribute albums, produced in part by one of Lou Reed’s closest friends, the late New York producer-impresario Hal Willner, with performers from Iggy Pop to Michael Stipe, St. Vincent, Courtney Barnett, and King Princess. Through all these cycles of transmission and genuflection, however, the Velvets came to seem less a real-life group of collaborating artists and more an idea, a byword for bohemian cool, symbolized by the Warhol-designed banana on the cover of the band’s 1967 debut album.
Haynes’ film The Velvet Underground, which premiered at Cannes this summer and is now streaming on Apple TV+ and playing in select cinemas, must be the first extended work about the VU not to quote the timeworn Brian Eno line that though only a handful of people bought the group’s first album, all of them went out and formed bands. In fact the film point-blank refuses to address the Velvets’ legacy at all. It cuts off when Reed quits the band in August 1970, two years after he’d kicked out Cale. Haynes made a rule that he would only interview people who’d personally been on the ground at the time, sparing viewers the obligatory rock-doc cameos from Bono or Dave Grohl bloviating about the vast significance of fill-in-the-subject-here. Instead, Haynes improbably rescues the VU from its own reputation. He lets viewers experience the magical mistake in process, in all its mess and sometimes ugliness, in one of the few locales in human history that could have made it possible, the art scene of early-to-mid-1960s New York.
Part of the reason there’s never been a significant VU documentary before is that there’s hardly any surviving film footage of the band in performance. Haynes turns this deficit to an advantage by filling his frames instead with clips from the experimental cinema and photography of the band’s peers, from within Andy Warhol’s Factory scene as well as others in the downtown avant-garde. The Velvet Underground is dedicated to Jonas Mekas, the patron saint and archivist of New York experimental film, and a frequent voice in the documentary since he was luckily interviewed before his 2019 death. Haynes often uses a split screen (invoking Warhol’s Chelsea Girls) to allow his interview subjects to go on laying out the oral history while the other half of the screen fills with montages of bodies, faces, effects, and colors from films by the likes of Mekas, Conrad, Jack Smith, Maya Deren, Barbara Rubin (who first brought Warhol to see the VU play at the Café Bizarre in late 1965), Harry Smith, Barbara Hammer, Stan Brakhage, and countless more. The credits are like an avant-garde art history syllabus in themselves.
The cumulative effect, as music and interviews and art films and footage of contemporary street life and news montages and more build up layer upon layer, is a multimedia sensory overload very much like some of the Velvets’ live shows at the time. That applies particularly to the notorious “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” showcases produced by Warhol on the Lower East Side in the mid-’60s. Those were forerunners of both performance and art installation practices that wouldn’t be fully established till years later, which again Haynes doesn’t bother pointing out; he just immerses and engulfs the viewer in it all. Even viewed on a small screen at home, I found it rapturous. I can only imagine what it’s like in a theater. All of which makes it exactly the kind of documentary that fulfills Eno’s dictum, the sort that after you encounter it, makes you want to go out and create art yourself.
One of the finest American filmmakers of the past several decades, Haynes’ engagement with music as a subject reaches back to his 1987 short Superstar about the Carpenters (as portrayed by Barbie and Ken dolls). Whatever form he turns his attention to, he is bound to invert and rearrange it to expose the genre’s inner workings, both as a queer artist’s interrogation of inherited norms and as a way of reawakening emotional undercurrents that have been numbed with repetition. With The Velvet Underground, he reinvents the rock documentary the way that his 2007 movie I’m Not There, in which he had six different actors play six different aspects of Bob Dylan, remixed the biopic.
Partly he does so by not asking the past to answer to the future. He respects viewers’ intelligence enough to assume we probably know what happened next, or can draw the connections for ourselves—in part, if we wish, by watching his 1998 glam-rock era tribute feature, Velvet Goldmine, which this film retrofits as a sequel. The fact that the VU’s sound was partly derived from experimental cinema, and from the year-and-a-half that Cale spent playing sustained drone tones for an hour-and-a-half a day with Conrad, the composer La Monte Young, and others in a project called the Dream Syndicate, on the other hand, isn’t something a smart but uninitiated contemporary viewer could just piece together for themselves. It’s perhaps a third of the way into the documentary that we even get to the founding of the band, but by that point we’re fully briefed to understand how the group came, as Cale puts it, to “combine R&B and Wagner.” As the surviving one of the VU’s two principals after Reed’s death in 2013, Cale’s perspective tends to have the most weight here, although Haynes uses excerpts from recorded interviews and other sources for balance. But Cale’s prominence in itself is a corrective to a history in which Reed’s beguiling and tormenting presence usually has been put at the center.
Of course Haynes does touch on all of the subjects that have been buzzed about for half a century, such as whether Reed’s parents subjected him to shock treatment to try to stop him from being gay, and all the drug use, and the cruelty that could circulate in Warhol’s milieus, and the sadomasochistic and street-junkie poetry in the VU’s lyrics. But he also recognizes how tedious all these subjects can become through fan fetishization. For much of the movie, instead, he keeps thinking about those Dream Syndicate drones, which carry on through the VU’s music in Cale’s sawing viola and in the spirals of guitar feedback and in Reed’s at once grimy and abstract words and in the rumbling trance of Moe Tucker’s drums. The power of the drone is not so much in its grinding monotony, although that’s part of how it draws a foreboding circle around this music daring listeners to enter, but in the harmonic overtones it produces, which eerily generate another level to the music that doesn’t seem to have a locatable human source. The singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman, who says in the documentary that he likely saw the VU play 60 to 70 times in his Boston hometown as a teenager (and was given guitar lessons by Morrison), talks about this mysterious “group sound” and how it would hypnotize crowds when the band played a song like “Sister Ray,” such that when they finished, there would be a full five seconds of silence before anyone recovered enough self-possession to start clapping.
Those harmonic overtones serve as a metaphor that drones in the background throughout the film. They stand for the ineffable alchemy of collaboration, in which, as Cale says, two plus two ends up making seven. And that’s not just the alchemy between Cale and Reed and the other band members. It’s between them and Warhol. It’s between them and the Teutonic chanteuse Nico—whom Warhol imposed on the group likely for all of the wrong reasons, a “blond iceberg” model amid all of these black-clad outcasts. It’s between them and the denizens of Warhol’s Factory, like Gerard Malanga and Mary Woronov, who would join them onstage to dance in leather harnesses with whips. It’s between them and all the filmmakers who projected “fucking polka dots” on them onstage, not to mention the audience members who were allowed to control the lighting and, usually, break the bulbs. And by extension the pulsing synapses of the postwar city itself.
But part of Haynes’ point—and part of the point of the Velvet Underground—is that this kind of magical mistaken serendipity does not come with contracts of safety and comfort. As Cale says early on, “It’s useful to be antagonistic.” The VU thrived on its antipathy to the ways everyone else made music, to the sunny optimism of the hippie scene, and to whatever they themselves had been doing last week and whoever they’d been doing it with. Predictably, within a few years, that antagonism turned inward and strangled the VU itself, but could it have been any other way? If there is a nostalgia underlying all of the vivid present-tense-ness of The Velvet Underground, it is from Haynes, a onetime radical artist who has made his own place in the Hollywood mainstream, wanting to know if there is any way out of today’s seemingly all-encompassing media ecosystem, to find an “outside” where something altogether other can happen, as it did a half-century ago. Perhaps it’s not an especially useful thing to wish for. But after passing through The Velvet Underground’s looking glass, through its sensorium of white light and white heat, and emerging stunned on the other side, I did wish, and wonder, and mourn. And I guess that I just don’t know.