Todd Haynes’ ‘The Velvet Underground’
Probably the best compliment I can pay to Todd Haynes’ Velvet Underground documentary is to say that it’s made in the spirit of the music. His switchblade editing, abundant use of split-screen and fantastic material from all sorts of archives creates a tone parallel to the sounds we’re hearing and to the lives we’re watching.
An important decision was not to include testimony from anyone who wasn’t actually a witness to the events the film records. Every voice you hear bears the glory and the wounds of what happened in that short time when Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker and Nico rewrote the rulebook. Cale is wonderfully engaged with a story that, for him, ended badly. Tucker still sounds like the real glue of the band. The voices of the departed members are heard in archive interviews. Among others who shed light are the veteran avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas, the actress Mary Woronov, the superfan Jonathan Richman, the composer La Monte Young, the scenemaker Danny Fields, Merrill Reed Weiner, Lou’s sister, and Martha Morrison, Sterling’s wife. (No Gerard Malanga and only the briefest glimpses of Edie Sedgwick, which is a bit of a surprise.)
It’s quite a demure film, given the milieu; the sexual merryground is glimpsed but not explored. Neither is Haynes interested in deep musicology. He wants impressions rather than details, which keeps the film moving. He doesn’t try to analyse the divide in Reed’s personality between the brutal and the tender. But we do get a feeling for the characters, as when Cale sums up Nico quite beautifully: “She was a wanderer. She wandered in and she quietly wandered out again.” And we certainly get an idea of how the chemistry between Long Island doo-wop fan Reed and Welsh avant-gardist Cale turned 56 Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side into such a potent musical laboratory. Haynes leaves us with a lovely colour clip of Reed and Cale performing “I’m Waiting for My Man” during their reunion at the Bataclan in Paris in 1972, with Nico waiting in the wings.
Throughout the film, the great songs — “Venus in Furs”, “Heroin”, “Sister Ray”, “White Light/White Heat”, “Pale Blue Eyes”, “Rock and Roll”, “Sweet Jane” — are allowed to emerge in the perfect setting. And as they issue from big cinema speakers, you may yourself experiencing once again the seismic effect they had when you first heard them, brand-new. There were times when I wanted to cheer.
I was fortunate enough to see this terrific film during the London Film Festival at the Royal Festival Hall, where the screening was introduced by Todd Haynes. It was interesting to hear his comments on the deployment of the wonderful archive footage in split-screen format to capture the shifting backdrop against which the music emerged.
And you are spot-on about how great the music sounded on the big speakers – as well as the songs you mention, I was pinned to my seat during the final credits as ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ unfolded to bring the film to a perfect conclusion.
I second your enthusiasm. The film is fabulously dense visually with layers of images echoing the theme of musicians, artists, film makers interacting. And the soundtrack is fantastic. In the cinema dozens of woofers emitting weird drones reverberated through me. It doesn’t censor what a prickly guy Lou Reed was. One pedantic query: Much is made of the VU hating hippies, hating Love & Peace, hating California. Then the target of their anger is Frank Zappa! Zappa hated hippies more than the VU. He wrote the memorable lyric “Hey punk where you goin’ with that button on your shirt? I’m goin’ to the love-in to sit and play my bongos in the dirt.” All this animosity possibly down to the fact that the Mothers were on Verve, like the VU, and got more support from the record label.
Great documentary, except that I found that the busy split-screen editing made me occasionally freeze the screen to avoid missing the details, which were plenty.
I’m glad the documentary was made by someone who appreciated the band.. As Richard put it: it lets one revisit one’s discovery of VU. That’s reason enough to be grateful and enjoy it. I’ll preface what I’m going to say by this: I’m a VU fan. I think they are important. The fan liked it. The importance guy was disappointed.
Like Richard I noted the film didn’t spend much time on the salacious aspects. I thought it’s predominate presentation was very objective, cool, removed, though some of the witnesses added notes of passion (J. Richman in particular). In the vintage footage/interviews that may be part of the Warhol vibe. Just how cool arts should be, just how much should art depend on the audience alone to bring reasons to be engaged, and empathy to be exchanged is an open question for me.
Even if more know in the 21st century that the VU are deemed cool or important than when they were a going concern, I don’t know how many new folks will be drawn in by this. My feeling watching it was that context was often lacking, connections appeared on the screen that I immediately recognized with pleasure and sometimes new discovery — but the others watching with me quickly became less interested. The film didn’t draw you in with some new theory or novel premise, and it touched only lightly on the typical “Behind the Music” band history tropes. It’s a connoisseur’s film not a popularizer’s or evangelist film.
It’s also not an exposé. Brief allusions and one frank statement noted that the Warhol scene had some problems for women. Of course so did the general culture. Was it better or worse? I don’t know.
Richard mentions it’s also not a musicological film, which I of course would have enjoyed. It gives some time to Cale’s background, a good corrective to the “Lou Reed’s band” outlook others might have taken. Tucker and Morrison’s influences and contributions are almost entirely ignored. That might be correct weighting, but I’m curious. At one point very early in the film a doo wop number segues into an avant-garde composition and I thought this film might demonstrate or call out some of the musical cross-fertilization that I hear in VU. I’ve heard some La Monte Young things and I’m similarly exposed to and have some small grasp of the 20th century avant-garde musical ideas, concepts, and so on. A variety of Asian music sources seem to be drawn into that, but that isn’t explained. After that striking segue (probably meant to concisely show how Reed/Cale’s backgrounds mashed up for those in the know — Afro-American influences (claimed, and evident in Reed) are absent as I recall. I’m sorry that I can’t say this without sounding like some kind of ungrateful woke-display — and having lived through that era, yes there’s a “reflect the times” factor — but for a documentary covering an American musical band, the whole thing seemed self-contained in whiteness in this film.
As always, others are free to take different approaches. Looking at the right-holder’s credits at the end made me admire the level of work and organization that it took to do Haynes’ film. Speaking of others, I’m now 1/3 through Unterberger’s “White Light/White Heat” chronology that is detail dense and answering some of my questions. It along with Haynes’ film is making we fully appreciate how much the avant-garde NYC film community incubated the Cale and the Velvets. Available dirt cheap as an E-book.