‘The Velvet Underground’ Documentary Is as Radical, Daring and Brilliant as the Band Itself

“I feel as if I were in a motion picture theater.” To the right of the screen, the face of a young man, half-obscured by shadows, stares blankly at us, his lips unmoving. It’s the kind of face you can’t take your eyes off of — and the voice is similarly magnetic.  It tells us of the “long arm of light” seeping out into the theater, of the shots “full of dots and rays.” Of the ways his eyes have, over the years, become fixed on those images, finding meaning and comfort and identity in them. 

It is the voice and face of Lou Reed: a glimpse of one of the musician’s “Screen Test” performances for one Andy Warhol. Not the one in which Reed knocks back a Coca Cola with the kind of erotic appeal that can arise from minimal effort. That one’s incredible, too. But what we’re seeing is “Screen Test Number One,” from 1966, in which the singer sheds his cool and confronts us instead with something equal parts radiant and isolated — near-antonyms that Reed’s face and Warhol’s gaze massage into an unshakeable harmony. The Reed onscreen is looking back at us with that same, steady fixation his voice is describing: The entranced, captive glare of an audience.

Early on, Todd Haynes’ mesmerizing new documentary, The Velvet Underground, issues a challenge to that sense of security. Really, it’s Reed’s own challenge, posed by his looking out at us as we look at him, describing the dark comfort of a movie theater — “I am anonymous and have forgotten myself,” he says of this experience — while making it impossible for those watching Haynes’s movie to feel the same. Why open a documentary about the seminal Sixties band with one of our most enduring rock legends spinning a love poem to movies? There’s the historical justification, of course: You cannot tell the story of this band without understanding the avant-garde New York of the 1960s, an era as pivotal for music as it was for cinema, poetry, every realm of art, every available medium and style. That’s not a new idea. But to find a form for it — to dive into the wreck, aiming for something alive and vicarious and emotionally jagged instead of the entombed, museum-like approach he could have taken. That’s what Haynes has accomplished, here. Well, Haynes and the band. They’re all in it together. 

Which may be the other reason the documentary proceeds as it does. It is clear from the start that this whirlwind tour of the short-lived but immeasurably influential life of this band will by-and-large be told using the visual syntax of the band’s peers. The Stan Brakhages and Kenneth Angers and Shirley Clarkes and, of course, Warhols of the moment; the experimenters making an elastic, volatile toy of the medium in the way that the Velvet Underground’s music toyed with (and upset) the conventions of rock & roll that the band chewed through in its short career. The movie is not averse to the straightforward use of talking heads or archival audio to tell a straight-ish story where it counts. But Haynes has fashioned this movie into a virtual classroom in which we will all dutifully jot down notes on John Cage and Allan Ginsberg. Better to give us the Velvet Underground themselves narrating their pains and obsessions, for us to sit back, sponge-like, and be as overwhelmed by what, in Haynes’s hands, suddenly feels radical, again. 

Think back to Reed’s face, looking out at us from one panel of the screen. Now imagine that other images are emerging in the other panel: Reed’s sister, Merrill Reed Weiner, narrating life and that imperfect Long Island upbringing as she and her brother knew it. A mix of family photographs and stock footage illustrate tales of a father’s emotional absence. Reed’s own recollections of his early forays into music, his choice to forego proper music lessons to instead play along with doo-wop and early rock on the radio, booking gigs while still in high school. Imagine that the indomitable John Cale’s life story comes next, much in the same way: a long shot of the young man’s face — again, by way of Warhol — and a life narrated in retrospect, a split-screen mix of personal archive and period stock, with pointed music cues directing us to the man’s externally imposed classical origins. 

These are origins that each man would in some ways reject. But The Velvet Underground is too wise in its passion for lore and ephemera, the nit and the grit of lived history  to whittle itself down to linear, causal mythologizing. That’s the stuff of rock legend and bloated biopics. Instead, let’s revel in the power of association: between the elder Reed’s voice and the young Reed’s face, for example, or between monologued personal histories and the visual detritus that throws the personal into relief. Before the doc even announces itself with a title card and needle drop (“Venus in Furs,” inescapably), it treats us to a seemingly-indirect starting point for this journey, via a 1963 clip of Cale on the gameshow “I’ve Got a Secret” as he bewilders the American TV public with a taste of Erik Satie’s “Vexations.” It’s an incredible moment in television history on its own. Here, it’s a nudge to draw a line from Cale and the band that would call itself the Velvet Underground to the avant-pop aficionados who’d equally define the era.

Haynes and his editors, Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz, have found a way to make the ephemeral feel beautiful and the art feel immediate. They’ve accordingly made the people comprising this story feel unusually present, here with us in the room as we watch. Warhol and Cage; Reed and Cale — and soon Moe Tucker, Doug Yule, Nico, Tony Conrad; the filmmakers Jonas Mekas (captured here in his final interview before his death in 2019) and proud freak John Waters; poet Delmore Schwartz; artist-musicians the likes of Jonathan Richman, Marian Zazeela, and La Monte Young; Warhol icon Mary Woronov — the list goes on. Childhood friends and girlfriends. The voices of those both dead and alive. 

The movie feels peculiarly attuned to the materials of the moment, knowingly yet searchingly feeling its way through the question of how artists become themselves. Which is sort of a dead question — what inspired this? what kind of a mind came up with this? — because we ask it of artists often and are rarely given answers that sound true. So we instead revel in the associations; we understand Reed and the others, best we can, from outside in, from what Haynes can make us feel of their moment. It also adds a thoughtful new chapter to what, for Haynes, has proven an ongoing set of interests. He’s perhaps most famous (and lauded) for films like the Patricia Highsmith adaptation Carol or Far From Heaven, his rhapsody on the themes of Douglas Sirk. But this is an artist whose first short, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, told the titular singer’s tragic life story using Barbie dolls in place of actors, carving away at the surface of Carpenter’s face as, over the course of the movie (and her life), she struggled with an eating disorder. His Bob Dylan movie, I’m Not There, used six different actors to play varying and elusive versions of a man known for his varying and elusive versions of himself. Velvet Goldmine, from 1998, is “about glam rock,” but really it’s about life in the shadow of glam rock — life inflected by what suddenly seemed possible, as well as by what proved not to be so.

These movies are all as interesting in their approach to their respective artists as they are to the audiences those legends have attracted to themselves. The Velvet Underground is no different. Reed’s face tells us this early on. We look at him, he looks at us — something happens between us. As history and testament, this group portrait is a feat of performance in its own right, history massaged through an energetic warring of styles and sources and synaptic freeways of association. It is a swirling tour of the facts that make up a set of lives — and an interrogation of fact, in favor of experience.  The movie makes you wish you were there. Lights darkened, dots and rays and Reed flickering before us, we nearly are.


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