The Velvet Underground pays tribute to the ’60s coolest band [Apple TV+ review]

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The Velvet Underground
Bands didn't get much artier than The Velvet Underground, and this new documentary does the group proud.
Photo: Apple TV+

In The Velvet Underground, the coolest band of the ’60s finally gets the biodoc treatment from a director who engaged with the group’s legacy throughout his career. Todd Haynes and Apple TV+ finally bring you the story of The Velvet Underground, the band that created punk rock and broke rock ‘n’ roll.

The Velvet Underground review

In the late ’60s, famed art provocateur Andy Warhol brought together a group of four wildly variant musicians and an actress/model to make an album. The result — The Velvet Underground & Nico — became one of the most important works of art of the 20th century. The album stood as a stark and destructive work of interrogation and excess, a borderline avant-garde destruction of everything rock music had become in the years since its informal creation.

The band went through a few lineup changes and broke up after five studio albums, a concert film and many famously tumultuous shows. Then the legends began. The Velvet Underground was instantly mythologized; everyone wanted to be them.

As Lou Reed’s solo career took off and he became the cultural institution he’s known as today, the idea of the Velvet Underground — and the lost eden of the Warhol Factory where they made their unstable, alchemical art — became a fantasy on par with the Algonquin Round Table or the Paris of the “Lost Generation.”

A straight shot of the Velvets

The Velvet Underground, the new documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Haynes, tries its best to dispel all the myths and fantasies and just tell the story of the band members from the start of their lives to the end of their collaboration. There’s understandably much focus on famously mercurial front man Reed and enigmatic Welsh multi-instrumentalist John Cale over other band members Nico, Maureen Tucker, Sterling Morrison and Doug Yule.

But there’s a decent underpinning of the art scene into which they birthed their groundbreaking music as well, from the drone music of La Monte Young to the film collective of Jonas Mekas. No perfect version of a film that tells every single detail of the story of the The Velvet Underground could probably get released on a major streaming service. It would have to be four hours at a minimum and detail everyone’s solo careers leading up to the band’s reunion shows in the ’90s.

Still, Haynes’ Velvet Underground documentary proves very good — as good as music docs can get these days.

White light

The Velvet Underground documentary review.
John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Lou Reed turned The Velvet Underground into a surprisingly influential band.
Photo: Apple TV+

Haynes is the kind of filmmaker who inevitably alienates a certain portion of his audience every single time at bat. Fans of his pop culture essays — I’m Not There about Bob Dylan, Velvet Goldmine about David Bowie, Far From Heaven about Douglas Sirk — don’t usually latch onto his more straightforward fiction work with the same fervor.

Far From Heaven and Carol appear to have a lot in common on first glance, but there’s an automatic difference between fully committing to the narrative ideas of the ’50s as he does in Carol, his Patricia Highsmith adaptation, and laying them out like colors on a palette to show what each one looks like individually in Far From Heaven.

Haynes has been in a peculiar mode of late, experimenting by becoming more ordinary. Carol is a (fantastic) straight-ahead, crime-tinged melodrama. Wonderstruck should be a kind of essay about cinema, and tries to be, but it also wants to be a post-Spielberg movie about childhood fears. (It fails at both.) The excellent Dark Water is a sort of ’70s-style political thriller and issue drama with very modern performances.

A straightforward biodoc

The Velvet Underground is also a very normal kind of exercise — the biodoc about a musical act, maybe the most popular form of nonfiction filmmaking after true crime the last decade — even if he still tries to imbue it with his own brand of ardent and literate cinephilia.

Haynes is up to something admirable. He’s trying to make a film about The Velvet Underground that feels of a piece with the kind of film art that the band itself took part in and endorsed. The film employs split-screen images for most of its two-hour running time, a conscious homage to films like Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls.

… with a healthy shot of art

Plus, it relies on both archival and abstract footage (movies like Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon and Shirley Clarke’s Bridges-Go-Round make appearances as textural underpinnings of the mission of the art of the Velvets), which frequently recalls the light and images used during Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable artistic freak-outs; settings where the Velvets themselves frequently played.

Obviously, because the film has a lot of factual information to get through, it can’t give itself over totally to artistic tangents, to drone on like the music of Cale or Young. But the effort is nevertheless appreciated. Most music docs (pick one: 20 Feet From Stardom, Miss Sharon Jones!, Searching for Sugarman) remain content to film interviews artlessly and mix those with archival concert footage or useless historical table setting. (Apple TV+’s own dreadful series 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything is a great example of how dull these things can be.)

Haynes knows he can’t fully escape it, but he gets close. (Closer even than colleague Jim Jarmusch’s own doc about The Stooges, Gimme Danger, managed a few years ago.) He makes art that works on its own steam and merit, while also telling an interesting story, and that’s a pretty big deal.

Having legendary photographer Ed Lachman shoot the interviews helps. One of the few people Reed and Cale both trusted with their image, Lachman directed their Warhol epitaph concert Songs for Drella in the ’90s. I’m actually kind of sad Haynes didn’t turn the camera around and ask his longtime collaborator about working with them.

I realize my surprise here is probably overwhelming my point. But try watching documentaries all year long and still getting excited about a new one.

White heat

It’s funny that the movie basically ends the second Reed leaves The Velvet Underground in the early ’70s. That decision confirms that Morrison, Yule and Tucker really aren’t all that compelling to Haynes and/or that without Reed, no one cared about the band.

Cale became one of the best singer/songwriters of the ’70s. (If you ever need to distract me, ask about his solo career. I could talk about it all night long.) Nico released some of the most iconically strange music of the 20th century. Tucker lead a pretty unique life, let’s say, which gets comically short shrift here. And Yule recorded the fifth Velvet Underground album Squeeze basically by himself.

None of that makes it into this Velvet Underground doc, which strives to preserve the illusion, as these kinds of movies always do, that the best stuff happened when the charismatic guys were around. Listening to Yule talk about Squeeze is probably only interesting to a handful of die-hards but, well, it’s part of the story of The Velvet Underground. Nobody likes The Doors recordings without Jim Morrison, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen.

The Velvet Underground has so much going for it that it didn’t bother me that it ends like all these things do, with a quick montage and some vague ideas about immortality.

We’re in a notoriously bad era for documentary filmmaking. Haynes may not have reinvented the wheel, but he aced this assignment. That’s important to a lot of people (including me), and for that he should be commended.

Watch The Velvet Underground documentary on Apple TV+

The Velvet Underground streams on Apple TV+ starting October 15.
Rated: R

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.