‘The Velvet Underground’ Documentary Is as Radical, Daring and Brilliant as the Band Itself

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The_Velvet_Underground_Photo_0104 - Credit: Nat Finkelstein/Apple TV+
The_Velvet_Underground_Photo_0104 - Credit: Nat Finkelstein/Apple TV+

“I feel as if I were in a motion picture theater,” he says, voice unmistakable. To the right of the screen, the face of a young man, half-obscured by shadows, stares blankly at us, his lips unmoving. It’s the kind of face you can’t take your eyes off of — and the voice is similarly magnetic. It tells us of the “long arm of light” seeping out into the theater, of the shots “full of dots and rays.” Of the ways his eyes have, over the years, become fixed on those images, finding meaning and comfort and identity in them.

It is the voice and face of Lou Reed: a glimpse of one of the musician’s “Screen Test” performances for one Andy Warhol. Not the one in which Reed knocks back a Coca Cola with the kind of erotic appeal that can arise from minimal effort. That one’s incredible, too. But what we’re seeing is “Screen Test Number One,” from 1966, in which the singer sheds his cool and confronts us instead with something equal parts radiant and isolated — near-antonyms that Reed’s face and Warhol’s gaze massage into an unshakeable harmony. The Reed onscreen is looking back at us with that same, steady fixation his voice is describing: The entranced, captive glare of an audience. The unchallenged security of the people who’ve come to do the watching, rather than to be watched.

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Early on, Todd Haynes’ mesmerizing new documentary, The Velvet Underground, issues a challenge to that sense of security. Really, it’s Reed’s own challenge, posed by his looking out at us as we look at him, describing the dark comfort of a movie theater — “I am anonymous and have forgotten myself,” he says of this experience — while making it impossible for those watching Haynes’s movie to feel the same. You cannot feel anonymous with the face of Lou Reed peering out at you, just as you cannot feel anonymous — immaterial, absent — with his voice digging around in your rucksack of a soul, mussing the hair of your psyche, every time his voice reaches our ears. Is there a word for that power? Maybe not. “It is, as they say, a drug,” Reed says — talking about the movies, about the act of seeing. We don’t need a word for what these images make us feel, he’s telling us. Warhol’s shorts were silents. Often, images say enough.

Why open a documentary about the seminal Sixties band with one of our most enduring rock legends spinning a love poem to movies? There’s the historical justification, of course: You cannot tell the story of this band without understanding the avant-garde New York of the 1960s, an era as pivotal for music as it was for cinema, poetry, every realm of art, every available medium and style. That’s not a new idea. But to find a form for it — to dive into the wreck, aiming for something alive and vicarious and emotionally jagged instead of the entombed, museum-like approach he could have taken. That’s what Haynes has accomplished, here. Well, Haynes and the band. They’re all in it together.

Which may be the other reason the documentary proceeds as it does. It is clear from the start that this whirlwind tour of the short-lived but immeasurably influential life of this band will by-and-large be told using the visual syntax of the band’s peers. The Stan Brakhages and Kenneth Angers and Shirley Clarkes and, of course, Warhols of the moment; the experimenters making an elastic, volatile toy of the medium in the way that the Velvet Underground’s music toyed with (and upset) the conventions of rock & roll that the band chewed through in its short career. The movie is not averse to the straightforward use of talking heads or archival audio to tell a straight-ish story where it counts. But Haynes has not fashioned this movie into a virtual classroom in which we will all dutifully jot down notes on John Cage and Allan Ginsberg. Better to give us the Velvet Underground themselves narrating their pains and obsessions, for us to sit back, sponge-like, and be as overwhelmed by what, in Haynes’s hands, suddenly feels radical, again.

Think back to Reed’s face, looking out at us from one panel of the screen. Now imagine that other images are emerging in the other panel: Reed’s sister, Merrill Reed Weiner, narrating life and that imperfect Long Island upbringing as she and her brother knew it. A mix of family photographs and stock footage illustrate tales of a father’s emotional absence. Reed’s own recollections of his early forays into music, his choice to forego proper music lessons to instead play along with doo-wop and early rock on the radio, booking gigs while still in high school. Imagine that the indomitable John Cale’s life story comes next, much in the same way: a long shot of the young man’s face — again, by way of Warhol — and a life narrated in retrospect, a split-screen mix of personal archive and period stock, with pointed music cues directing us to the man’s externally imposed classical origins.

These are origins that each man would in some ways reject. But The Velvet Underground is too wise in its passion for lore and ephemera, the nit and the grit of lived history to whittle itself down to linear, causal mythologizing. That’s the stuff of rock legend and bloated biopics. Instead, let’s revel in the power of association: between the elder Reed’s voice and the young Reed’s face, for example, or between monologued personal histories and the visual detritus that throws the personal into relief. Before the doc even announces itself with a title card and needle drop (“Venus in Furs,” inescapably), it treats us to a seemingly-indirect starting point for this journey, via a 1963 clip of Cale on the gameshow “I’ve Got a Secret” as he bewilders the American TV public with a taste of Erik Satie’s “Vexations.” It’s an incredible moment in television history on its own. Here, it’s a nudge to draw a line from Cale and the band that would call itself the Velvet Underground to the avant-pop aficionados who’d equally define the era.

Haynes and his editors, Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz, have found a way to make the ephemeral feel beautiful and the art feel immediate. They’ve accordingly made the people comprising this story feel unusually present, here with us in the room as we watch. Warhol and Cage; Reed and Cale — and soon Moe Tucker, Doug Yule, Nico, Tony Conrad; the filmmakers Jonas Mekas (captured here in his final interview before his death in 2019) and proud freak John Waters; poet Delmore Schwartz; artist-musicians the likes of Jonathan Richman, Marian Zazeela, and La Monte Young; Warhol icon Mary Woronov — the list goes on. Childhood friends and girlfriends. The voices of those both dead and alive.

The bedrock of Velvet Underground is its generous and dynamic deployment of rare footage from The Factoryg and guided tours (via media that ranges from the personal and archival to the cynically commercial and impersonal) of the how and when and what of the both the specific avant-garde scene at its center and the America writ large that somehow gave rise to that scene. With that throughline comes another, running parallel: the how and when and what of Reed, in particular, his desires, his drugs, his darkness. We get a pocket-sized history of cruising; we get explorations of the way the members of the Velvet Underground lived lives rife with sticky material — out of which they would somehow make art.

Velvet Underground feels peculiarly attuned to its moment, to even the question of how to properly depict the moment. It knowingly yet searchingly feels its way through the question of how artists become themselves. Which is sort of a dead question — what inspired this? what kind of a mind came up with this? — because we ask it of artists often and are rarely given answers that sound true. Velvet Underground is clearly willing to do the diligence of providing the moods and contexts and backstories at one needs to give that question a bit of factual heft, however much it streamlines much of this in favor of being as capacious as possible. But what I get from, say, peeking behind the curtain of Reed’s upbringing and depressions as I watch this movie isn’t a clear and simple pathway to the man’s art (or heart, for that matter). It is instead the far more intriguing and murky problem of a private life, a creative life that will never fully be known to me. Not, at least, if limited to biography.

So we instead revel, Velvet Underground as our guide, in the associations; we understand Reed and the others, best we can, from outside in, from what Haynes can make us feel of the present-tense realities of their scene. On the whole, it’s a thoughtful new chapter to what, for Haynes, has proven an ongoing set of interests. He’s perhaps most famous (and lauded) for films like the Patricia Highsmith adaptation Carol or Far From Heaven, his rhapsody on the themes of Douglas Sirk. But this is an artist whose first short, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, told the titular singer’s tragic life story using Barbie dolls in place of actors, carving away at the surface of Carpenter’s face as, over the course of the movie (and her life), she struggled with an eating disorder. His Bob Dylan movie, I’m Not There, used six different actors to play varying and elusive versions of a man known for his varying and elusive versions of himself. Velvet Goldmine, from 1998, is “about glam rock,” but really it’s about life in the shadow of glam rock — life inflected by what suddenly seemed possible, as well as by what proved not to be so.

These movies are all vital in their approach to their respective artists — and intriguing for their curiosity about the audiences that these legends have attracted to themselves. The Velvet Underground is no different. Reed’s face tells us this early on. We look at him, he looks at us — something happens between us. As history and testament, this group portrait is a feat of performance in its own right, history massaged through an energetic warring of styles and sources and synaptic freeways of association. It is a swirling tour of the facts that make up a set of lives — and an interrogation of fact, in favor of experience. The movie makes you wish you were there. Lights darkened, dots and rays and Reed flickering before us, we nearly are.

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