You may think you know all you need to know about The Velvet Underground: the encounter of New York songwriter Lou Reed and Welsh classical violist John Cale, the bringing in of drummer Maureen Tucker and guitarist Sterling Morrison, the ‘sponsorship’ of the band by Andy Warhol, the temporary addition of Nico to the outfit, the seemingly inevitable spiralling of tensions in the band and replacement of Cale with bassist Doug Yule, and the eventual departure of Reed for a solo career. But that’s merely an outline of the story; besides, the true texture of a story depends on who’s telling it and what approach they take. In the case of a new documentary simply titled The Velvet Underground, the storyteller is Todd Haynes, which counts for a lot. Ever since his near-legendary 1987 featurette Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (which made brilliant use of Barbie dolls to deal with the singer’s life and death) and his 1991 feature debut Poison (an eccentric but very effective Genet-inspired triptych dealing with sexuality, marginalisation, alienation, transgression, sickness and notions of monstrosity), Haynes has proven to be one of the most rewardingly imaginative storytellers around. The issues dealt with in that first feature have recurred throughout his career like variations on a handful of themes, but so accomplished and versatile a filmmaker is he that movies as diverse as Safe, Far from Heaven and Dark Waters – not to mention his TV series Mildred Pierce – are still clearly recognisable as works by Todd Haynes. And anyone who’s seen Velvet Goldmine (a tale of a Bowie-like glam rock star, modelled partly on Citizen Kane) or I’m Not There (a episodic look at the work and lives [sic] of Bob Dylan using a fistful of actors – including Cate Blanchett – to play Dylan-inspired characters) wiIl know that Haynes seldom takes a conventional approach to a subject.
So Haynes’ The Velvet Underground is also very much about things other than the Velvet Underground (including of course, at various points, sexuality, marginalisation, alienation, transgression, monstrosity and sickness). He’s interested in where the band members came from (and yes, that does take us to the Welsh valleys), their attitudes to where they came from, and what their ambitions may have been. But he’s also profoundly interested in America in the early and mid-60s, and more particularly in New York at that time, with its vibrant experimental arts scene. So the chronicle of the band’s progress takes in not only Warhol and the Factory (which doesn’t even really appear until almost halfway into the movie) but avant-garde composers like John Cage and La Monte Young, poets Delmore Schwartz and Allen Ginsberg, and filmmakers like Jack Smith and Jonas Mekas (to whose memory the documentary is dedicated). One of the movie’s many eloquent (but never hagiographic) contributors interviewed is the estimable New York film critic Amy Taubin, who perceptively points to parallels between the proto-minimalist drone music played by Young and Cale and the long, often static, unedited or slowed-down films made by Warhol; both were partly about extending time. (Taubin, who appeared in films by Warhol and Michael Snow, and is seen as her younger self in the former during Haynes’ movie, also observes that the Factory was not a great place for women, who were deemed of interest for their looks alone).
The strength of Haynes’ film, then, lies not only in its acknowledgement of the talents, interests and shortcomings of the individual members of the Velvet Underground but in its careful placing of the band in a historical, cultural, aesthetic and political context. It ranges widely; early on we see Cale on an early 60s American chat show discussing his recent 18-hour performance of Satie’s Vexations (yes, he beat Igor Levit to it!), while the coverage of Warhol’s The Exploding Plastic Inevitable and the band’s subsequent trip to the West Coast is exemplary (Moe Tucker is especially funny in her scathing dismissal of the Californian hippies’ belief in flower-power). At first the use of split screen and rapid montage may seem a little overwhelming, but Haynes knows how to pace a film and how to make the most of resources; there’s plenty of great archive footage here, plenty of great interviews (with Cale and Tucker perhaps inevitably the highlights, though Mekas, Taubin, Young, Mary Woronov and others all have interesting things to say), plenty of sound clips of Reed and others no longer around, and plenty of great music. It’s clear, I think, that the most extraordinary material was produced while Cale was involved; that’s when, driven by his avant-garde impulses, the band was pushing boundaries in terms of improvisation and sound with songs like ‘Heroin’. Thereafter, while there were still terrific songs with fine lyrics, the music itself made a turn towards more conventional rock ’n’ roll, and Reed proceeded further towards the stardom he’d always wanted. The rest is not noise but history.
Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground is released in the UK as of today, 15 October; it is also available to view on Apple TV.