Hypnotically vibrating in the fuzzy black space between a very special episode of “Behind the Music” and the longest film that Stan Brakhage never made, Todd Haynes’ “The Velvet Underground” is a documentary (his first) by a man whose previous musical tributes include a glam-rock fantasia that gave David Bowie the “Citizen Kane” treatment, a “Mishima”-esque kaleidoscope that refracted Bob Dylan through the infinity mirror of his own myth, and an underground Karen Carpenter biopic that cast the late singer as a literal Barbie doll. It makes Haynes’ choice to make a comparatively straightforward non-fiction movie about his favorite band is a curious one, and it calls implicit attention to the kind of artistic intentionality that most womb-to-tomb music docs only highlight in their subjects.
What might compel an auteur capable of exorcising “Far from Heaven” from the ghost of Douglas Sirk to make a film so full of talking heads and archival footage? Why would someone with Haynes’ gift for interpolating his influences in unexpected ways submit himself to the strictures of a basic rise-and-fall rock saga that everyone knows?
The answer to those questions — or so it seems after the first of what could easily become a dozen viewings — is that Haynes is less interested in reinterpreting the Velvets than he is in remembering them. And not just them, but also remembering the perfect catalysy of creative energies and tore it asunder before most of the world even began to recognize what it meant.
The historical fact of their transgressive greatness has been distilled/immortalized/done to death by t-shirts, dorm-room décor, The Strokes, et al., but Haynes also captures the specific texture of the creative freedom that conjured the Velvets from the heteronormative safety of “Mad Men”-era New York. Just when you thought you’d rather watch all eight hours of “Empire” for the second time than ever sit through another fucking documentary about Andy Warhol, this lucid history sparks a new appreciation of what his factory made possible.
At its best, Haynes’ film is neither a dry accounting of who the Velvets were nor a heady evocation of their work; it’s a movie about the fires these people set inside each other and how they spread to anyone else who was burning and gave them the same permission to push back against expectations.
There are tired expository stretches toward the end — unhappy families might be different, but unhappy bands all seem to break up the same way — and there are giddy moments that threaten to explode non-fiction norms with the director’s usual flair. But if “The Velvet Underground” excerpts oodles of experimental films (and channels several more) without threatening to become an experimental film itself, that’s only because Haynes’ loving tribute is able to translate the language of a singular American moment into something digestible enough for us to understand that no one will ever speak it the same way again.
Nevertheless, “The Velvet Underground” is a film you hear with your eyes. Warhol said that he liked the Velvets because they sounded the way his movies looked, and now Haynes has made a documentary that looks the way the Velvets sounded. Modern Lovers founder and Velvet Underground superfan Jonathan Richman describes the band’s “strange melodies” and how you could see everybody onstage and still not account for where a particular noise was coming from. Haynes’ film is like that because the scene around the band was like that — a constellation of talents greater than the sum of their parts.
“The Velvet Underground” makes time for all of the expository table-setting we’ve been conditioned to expect (it’s hard not to feel a shudder of recognition when Haynes’ cold open segues into a segment on Lou Reed’s childhood), but there’s so much stimuli to process that even basic details are enlivened by how they might smear into something else. The screen is almost always split into fragments, recalling “Chelsea Girls” as editors Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz create an associative mosaic of images so loud that you can practically hear the synapses firing as your brain connects the slow cinema of Andy Warhol to the sustained tones of La Monte Young.
The most arresting example of this technique arrives right away, as Haynes enlivens the stories of Reed and John Cale’s early lives by wedging their Warhol camera tests onto the far side of the frame, as if they were scoffing at their own supposed importance or reminding us that even the greatest rock myths are rooted in flesh and blood. Or maybe Cale was just waiting to say his piece. The final word usually goes to the last man standing, and Cale — just by virtue of being alive — gets to own the spotlight in a way he never could when sharing a stage with Reed. This is his movie from the moment it starts, and the Welsh drone-guitar wizard makes the most of it.
Haynes, likewise, makes the most of him. That starts with an ancient clip of Cale on a fuddy-duddy game show, a perfect expression of the white-bread culture the Velvets would later exist to antagonize. It continues with Cale’s ample testimony, which, like all of the film’s talking-head footage, is shot in “so textured you want to touch it” 16mm by Ed Lachmann in order to sustain the documentary’s spell. Cale is a wonderful entry point into the New York City that gave birth to the band, and his fond recollections pave the way for detours into the Dream Syndicate, the Factory, and whatever else feels relevant. There’s something omnivorous about that man’s creative energy, and he naturally tessellates with any two subjects that Haynes wants to bring together. Nothing feels like a detour.
Cale is also grounding in a way that complements Haynes’ affectionate lack of reverence (the filmmaker adores these people enough to accept the fullness of who they were). Yes, Reed was “like a three-year-old” who “needed to make everybody as uncomfortable as he was,” but for an artist who found it so useful to be antagonistic, well, that didn’t always stop when he put down his guitar.
Haynes acknowledges that Reed could be difficult, but he isn’t particularly interested in specifics. As well as that approach works in regards to the band’s formation (the words “The Velvet Underground” aren’t even spoken until the one-hour mark), it’s less successful when things sour. The Velvets’ trip to LA starts a clumsy tumble through everything that happened afterward. It’s as if Haynes speeds through the downbeats in recognition that breakups are never all that interesting, but the dissolution feels like a disservice to the film and to the people and artists who Reed and his cohorts became in the years that followed.
There’s a poignancy to the drop-off — to the idea that God put these outsiders on this Earth for that one lightning bolt of a moment when they all came together — but there’s also something missing, as if “The Velvet Underground” needed a lot more time or a little less of it. That’s usually the case when it comes to the great rock-and-roll stories, and this is nothing if not one of them.
“The Velvet Underground” premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. Apple will release it in theaters and on Apple TV+ on Friday, October 15, 2021.