Written by Patrick Hao
Todd Haynes is no stranger to deconstructive takes on legendary rock and roll stars. His short film Superstar, which sees Haynes depict the life of Carpenters singer, Karen Carpenter, using Barbie dolls put him on the map as a filmmaker to watch. He further deconstructs the life of a fictional version of David Bowie and Iggy Pop/Lou Reed hybrid in Velvet Goldmine. It seems particularly apropos that the title takes the word velvet from The Velvet Underground’s influence. With I’m Not There, Haynes deconstructs the persona of Bob Dylan through vignettes that represent his public persona.
All of these projects make Haynes particularly adept to handle a documentary about the esoteric 60’s rock icons, The Velvet Underground in the appropriately titled film, The Velvet Underground. Rather than making a traditional straight forward documentary on the band, Haynes uses the story of the band in order to explore the cultural landscape of downtown New York City in the late 60’s. This was an especially booming time for the arts scenes with folk singers, authors, artists, and filmmakers. It makes sense then that Haynes not only collects voices that knew the band well but also pulled in cultural critics like Amy Taubin and experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas to give their testament to the arts scene of the time.
Mekas’s appearance in the film looms large as this is his final appearance after his death in 2019. The film is dedicated to him not only in name but in the way that Haynes utilizes a lot of the same techniques Mekas used in his experimental films. Haynes tells the story of the band, its members, and their impact through an impressive array of collages and kinetic images to portray the vibes of the time.
Velvet Underground isn’t a hagiography of any sort in which everything presented is a testament to the band’s greatness. Rather, Haynes allows the music to play continuously throughout, underscoring the information presented. This presentation underlines how much the band was a presence of the time.
The film also presents the two faces of the band, seemingly opposite of each other. Lou Reed was the lyricist who wrote painfully personal songs about his personal depression and insecurity, it’s unclear if his self-destruction was done purposefully to gather material. On the other side is John Cale, the musical experimental impresario whose compositions still feel radical to this day.
Obviously, the quiet hum of nostalgia, the abundance of artistic creativity, radiates throughout the film. Many of the characters who were there have long been gone. Lou Reed has been dead since 2013. Guitarist Sterling Morrison has been dead since 1995. Periphery figures that were important to the band’s image such as Nico and Andy Warhol have passed as well. But the film does not shy away from the unpleasantness of a mercurial figure like Reed, who would frequently drive the band apart with his demeanor. An all too brief section recounts the rampant sexism of the Avant Garde art scene of the Warhol Factory. If anything, The Velvet Underground is a bit too straight in its presentation as Haynes decided chronologically would be the best way to tell this story. But it seems that Haynes is not necessarily interested in the information presented with this documentary. Rather, he is out to capture a time of artistic creativity that can only become legend. Just as the Velvet Underground band itself has become legend.
The Velvet Underground Trailer
The Velvet Underground is currently available to stream on Apple TV+ and in limited theatrical release.