The Velvet Underground review – Todd Haynes doc gets under the art-rockers’ skin

With insights by the band’s former members and friends, this film takes its job seriously – even if it shies away from discordant notes

Maybe no subject more fits the phrase “you had to be there” than the Velvet Underground, the band that emerged as part of a richly interdisciplinary artistic adventure in the American late-1960s. Not so much a rock band, more a way of life.

They were part of a complex social ecosystem of experimental artists in New York, named after a book about the sexual subculture by Michael Leigh. They played ... pop music? Rock’n’roll? Proto-punk? Avant garde? An interviewee here in Todd Haynes’s documentary talks about the co-existence of R&B and Wagner. The band was fronted by guitarist and lyricist Lou Reed. Or conceivably it was the sometime singer Nico, whose name was presented separately from the rest of the band on a “feat.” basis, without being pre-eminent, unlike Diana Ross and the Supremes or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

And Andy Warhol, who virtually created, or recreated, the Velvet Underground as the Factory house band, was their ... what? Manager? Enabler? Producer? Patron? Album cover designer? Eminence grise? At any rate he was sufficiently integral for Reed to feel the need to fire him – as he was to fire the band’s immensely talented co-founder, the classically trained musician and viola player John Cale, who looked like a cross between Syd Barrett and Glenn Gould and speaks here with great gentleness and forbearance towards his late comrade.

Haynes presents his movie in a more or less continuous split screen, juxtaposing a collage of thematically relevant found-object images, archival material about the band, and talking-head interviews with surviving band members and admirers or sometimes Warhol’s daringly static portrait-movie images of people like Reed who had to just stare into the camera lens. Haynes gives a very good sense of what I can only call the transcendental quality of the Velvet Underground’s music, inspired as it initially was by the aesthetic of drones, sustained chords and chord variations, a sense that continuous immersion in the music will (at some stage) facilitate an epiphany that cannot be coerced or guaranteed. But the Velvet Underground were not producing laidback hippy whale music: as drummer Moe Tucker points out, they hated hippies and (capriciously) hated Frank Zappa on that basis. This was angry, confrontational, nerve-frazzling rock.

How great to see Jonathan Richman (a madeleine for my own record-buying past) talk about what would happen at a Velvet Underground gig at the end of a song: the crashing finality of silence for which no chord progression had prepared the audience. Then five long seconds of quiet, then an eruption as the crowd emerged, euphorically, from the spell.

This is a great documentary about people who are serious about music and serious also about art, and what it means to live as an artist. Where perhaps it falls down is on the ordinary, gossipy sense of how exactly the band members could have fallen out so badly, and how painful that surely must have been. Perhaps it’s the Spinal Tap factor, a reticence or self-consciousness about the potential absurdity of these private moments of drama.

And what about sex? The film is a little reticent here too, more about the underground than the velvet, and it leaves the issue of Reed’s own sexuality more or less untouched. It left me with a real need to buy their records and buy something to play them on.

• The Velvet Underground is released on 15 October in cinemas and on Apple TV+


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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