‘The Velvet Underground’ chronicles avant-garde band’s place in 60s culture

‘The Velvet Underground’ chronicles avant-garde band’s place in 60s culture
Image/PolyGram Entertainment

By Andrew Dunbar

“Rubin was one of those elite filmmakers. Really knew Bob Dylan, really knew Andy [Warhol]. One day she came into The Factory and announced there was a band downtown that they should really come and see.” – John Cale

“The Velvet Underground” premiered on Apple TV+ on Oct. 15 and marks the first major documentary on the groundbreaking New York band. Stylish and well-edited by director Todd Haynes and his team, Haynes chooses to replicate the spirit of the abstract art that flourished in the latter half of the 1960s in New York as he tells the story of this ingenious band.

Haynes goes to great lengths to show how The Velvet Underground, while wholly unique, were not alone in the avant-garde art scene, but part of a larger movement producing new ideas and experimental music in a rapidly changing America. Although it should go without saying, the soundtrack is remarkable, featuring the band’s most prominent tracks as well as deep cuts, alternate takes, live recordings and some of frontman Lou Reed’s inspirations.

The film boasts a level of immersion a step above most music documentaries by doing away with historians’ and scholars’ outside perspectives, focusing instead on archival footage of the group at work and play and restricting interviews to band members and close friends. This creates a level of intimacy between the viewer and each band member as the film takes its time to familiarize the audience with the lives of the Velvets, particularly the group’s most prominent contributors, Lou Reed and John Cale.

As previously mentioned, the film connects The Velvet Underground to the pocket of New York in which they dwelled, offering a cultural panorama of the avant-garde scene. Andy Warhol’s Factory – a frequent haunt of the Velvets – and its colorful inhabitants are particularly well-documented, as they would serve as songwriting inspiration for Reed on tracks such as “Femme Fatale,” “Candy Says” and his later solo hit, “Walk on the Wild Side.” Despite straying from the band at times throughout his film, Haynes manages to never lose direction.

If it possesses one primary flaw, it’s that the documentary doesn’t spend enough time on the tracks themselves. While providing excellent narratives on the lives of the members and the culture around them, more time could have been devoted to offering analysis and background on the dense, dynamic songs that comprised the group’s four albums. Though the band’s formation and first two records are well-documented, little time is spent on their masterful self-titled 1969 album, simply referred to by fans as “The Grey Album,” or their final record with Reed at the helm, 1970’s “Loaded,” which featured some of their most recognizable songs such as “Sweet Jane” and “Oh! Sweet Nuthin.’”

“The Velvet Underground” also offers fans an intimate glimpse into the tortured psyche of Reed, the band’s primary writer and singer. The film sheds new light on the origins of his documented drug use and temper. Family members, bandmates and friends provide testimony on his difficult childhood, depression and sexuality, all of which Reed made unapologetically apparent in the bleak poetry of his lyrics.

It also offers perspective from the two living band members, violist John Cale and drummer Maureen Tucker, who describe knowing and working with Reed as both extraordinary and infuriating. Well-versed Velvet fans will be familiar with the clash between Reed and Cale for the top spot and the drastic change it brought to their sound when Lou finally ousted Cale after their chaotic second album, “White Light/ White Heat.”

While Cale shares his experiences dealing with Reed’s volatile personality, Reed isn’t here to tell his side of the story. In fact, Reed’s absence in the film is palpable and remains an uncontrollable flaw that accompanies any VU documentary. His vinegary, enigmatic personality is well portrayed in the sparing media captured of him in his lifetime, but Haynes was limited to just a few audio and film recordings of the standoffish rockstar.

“The Velvet Underground” isn’t merely a band doc; it’s also a preservation of a remarkable time in our nation’s past when artists, and musicians in particular, commanded culture and challenged the status quo. Haynes’ film serves as a love letter not only to the Velvet Underground, but to all experimental art that breaks boundaries and inspires.

The writer is a student at Providence College majoring in English with a music minor.