The Velvet Underground ★★★★

Absence is impossible in Todd Haynes’ experimental, fanatical documentary, The Velvet Underground. Marked by split screens rolling with Andy Warhol Screen Tests, archival blimps and shadows from The Factory hangout, and mesmerizing tonal stretches capturing the hum of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Haynes makes every second of his first documentary feel like a personal, all-encompassing historical artifact.

Velvet Underground is a study in projecting a feeling — one that uses the voices of those who have went on to another life and those still present on Earth but perhaps removed permanently from the era which they popularized. One ghost is that of Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed, staring at us through the screen as he intones, “I feel as if I were in a motion picture theater. I am anonymous and have forgotten myself.” 

In a way, the film forgets Reed as a typical documentarian subject. While initially opting to explore Reed’s upbringing, riddled with the do-or-die exploration of music, spirit, and sexuality, his sister Merrill sets aside the exposition and thus initiates a broader reconnaissance of Reed’s presence within a groundbreaking moment in rock history. 

Bleeding onto the screen next is the face of John Cale, detailed in his own recounting of the outsider’s life. He found his peer in Reed once he escaped the Welsh provinces for New York in 1964. Illustrating the seriousness of their craft, Cale recounts a conversation with Reed on the music that he truly meant to release:

Cale: “Lou said, ‘they won’t let me record the songs I want to do.’ And that was like red to a bull. And I said, ‘what are the songs that you want?’

Reed: “I was writing about pain, and I was writing about things that hurt, and I was writing about reality as I knew it or friends of mine had known or things I had seen or heard. Or — I was interested in communicating to people who were on the outside.”

So the melancholic, spunky New Yorker finds partnership with the Welsh violist, and additions of guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker catalyze the band’s journey forward. The steps Haynes takes in this remembrance are as unfamiliar and off-kilter as the band’s original sound was when it premiered. It’s also as groovy, sensory-piquing, and mesmerizing as the band’s current status in rock lore. 

Intermixed between dialogue on the typical band ups-and-downs are testimonies from the influences and personalities of Andy Warhol’s affiliates along with the purveyors of rock and film’s most experimental and least heteronormative zeniths. Among those is minimalist provocateur La Monte Young and avante-garde mastermind Jonas Mekas, the former giving his last interview before his death in 2019, to which the film is dedicated. Each interview feels like a surge of emotion, dotted with clips of Dada renderings, New York city cabs, and voyeuristic intimacy, none of which is misplaced by editors Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz. Haynes’ direction ensures that these moments are also not impractical, inserted for the purpose of revealing experimentalism.  

The Velvet Underground is nothing if not abrasive. Haynes’ interviewees take the time to disrupt narratives of the band or popular culture that have sustained with infamy, whether it be Reed’s family’s supposed homophobia, the misogyny of Warhol’s kindred spaces, or a despised dichotomy between political and cultural attitudes of protest and difference. But the influence of the band is never forgotten, nor does it dim with the first watching of the film. Haynes’ film is the open-ended answer to how the band came to be in that historical moment, rife with the possibilities of that to come.

Even though Haynes’ practice may overshadow the typical documentary form, Velvet Underground never misses the rise and fall of the band. Interpolated with the dripping lyrics of addiction, desire, and pain, the film does its diligence in connecting those themes which marked the artistic overhaul of the 1960s beyond music and film. The Velvet Underground finds its footing with direction that is nostalgic, informative, and worthy of revisit. 

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