All Yesterday’s Parties
By Chloe Lizotte

The Velvet Underground
Dir. Todd Haynes, U.S., Apple

In the early 1960s, John Cale moved to New York from Wales to join La Monte Young’s minimalist ensemble the Theatre of Eternal Music. The group’s harmonic experiments were often inspired by their environment; Cale recalls tuning instruments to the buzz of his apartment’s refrigerator to emulate “the drone of Western civilization.” Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground—at least four years in the making and his first traditional documentary—is all about this feedback loop between sound and environment. As much as the film follows the basic story of the band whose classic lineup featured Cale, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, and Moe Tucker, it’s also the story of the New York experimental arts scene that made it all possible, which Haynes depicts as a whizzing particle collider.

Starting with the Velvet Underground’s sound—Haynes begins by isolating Cale’s droning and screeching viola over a black screen—may seem like an obvious choice, but it’s a way of avoiding the worst tendencies of music documentaries. Since surviving musicians or their estates hold the rights to the music, many of these films become softball hagiographies. On the other hand, very public misunderstandings can break out between filmmakers and subjects, as recently happened with the new Alanis Morissette documentary Jagged. There’s also the VH1 Behind the Music model, where secondhand sources speculate on a given band’s deep-set insecurities or substance abuse issues. Haynes’s film is necessarily shaped by interpersonal realities; the fact that Cale and Tucker are still alive gives them a different kind of weight than the late Reed and Morrison, while Doug Yule—who joined after Cale left the group, and whose “final” VU record Squeeze, featuring none of the original band members, is quietly elided here—declined to participate. Apart from these fragile dynamics, the proposition of a new documentary about the Velvet Underground may feel less like shedding light on an underappreciated story than a variation on a stale American Masters template. And what can you cinematically add to White Light/White Heat, where “Wagner meets R&B” to Cale’s ears, that you can’t get from listening to the album?

Haynes’s approach is more diffuse, drawn to the energy of the first half of the band’s career. Much like his I’m Not There was a smart, expansive rebuttal to the limitations of the rock star biopic, The Velvet Underground sidesteps the more obvious questions a rock documentary would pose. Instead of asking, Who, definitively, were the Velvet Underground?, Haynes widens the net. His film wonders: What brings people together creatively? How does that reflect a time and place—for better or for worse? To begin, it was mid-’60s New York: the band got their start in a small, cross-pollinating community of avant-gardists. Cale’s Ludlow Street building alone housed Flaming Creatures filmmaker Jack Smith, Warhol superstar Mario Montez, and Tony Conrad, Cale’s roommate and fellow member of the Theatre of Eternal Music. After artist Barbara Rubin caught an early VU set at Café Bizarre, Andy Warhol became their band manager; though he gave the band a crucial early platform, especially a rehearsal venue in the Factory and an operatic vocal foil to Reed in Nico, Warhol also knew that their concerts would draw captive audiences for his new, durative shorts. The show that resulted—the Exploding Plastic Inevitable—combined a live concert by the band, an abstract light show, projections of Warhol’s films, and dancing from Factory members Gerard Malanga and Mary Woronov. The film’s moving final dedication to Jonas Mekas, briefly interviewed here, inspires an impressionistic aesthetic: dazzling grids of New York’s experimental archives, including Ken Jacobs, Merce Cunningham, Willard Maas and Marie Menken, Nam June Paik, and more (the credits PDF from the press packet is 26 pages long).

Yet Haynes doesn’t falsely promise that this was a perfect time and place. This is aided by the fact that all the interviewees personally knew the band when it was active; La Monte Young is interviewed but Laurie Anderson, who met Reed in 1992, is not. There thankfully aren’t any Boomer or Gen-X music critics waxing poetic about the historical importance of the Factory, but there is film critic Amy Taubin, a Factory veteran with her own screen test, to remind us that the Factory was often a harsh, shallow, competitive scene for women. As a reminder of the world outside of the band’s avant-garde bubble, Haynes includes an incredible segment of a 21-year-old Cale playing an Erik Satie piano piece on the panel show I’ve Got a Secret, during which the camera slowly tracks by a group of panelists pulling funny faces for the audience. It may be an obvious point that the band was out of step with the mainstream—and evergreen, since very recently Jimmy Fallon similarly made light of free jazz musician Peter Brötzmann, who took it in stride—but even the ’60s counterculture was an uncomfortable fit for the band when they toured in California, sonic outcasts next to Frank Zappa and Cass Elliot. In contrast to the bright paisleys of the hippie scene, they dressed head-to-toe in black and were named after a paperback on sadomasochism—and Haynes flashes a famous quote from Cher suggesting the band’s music as a suicide aid.

Instead of flower power, Haynes situates the band in the queer avant-garde tradition: Reed’s writing was inspired by Arthur Rimbaud and William Burroughs; Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising plays over the Velvets’ “Venus in Furs.” Transgression was the key to their sonic palette, driven by the collision of Cale’s sustained minimalism with Reed’s earthy lyricism on pain and desire. There’s also an intriguing, oblique link between the mainstream currents resisted by the band and the mid-century repression depicted in some of Haynes’s earlier work, especially Far from Heaven and Carol. Regardless of Haynes’s focus on subversion, he maintains an almost defiant professionalism about the band’s personal lives. Each musician is introduced in dual projection: a Ken Burns–style archival reel rolls beside their static Warhol screen tests, which reflect the unbridgeable distance of staring into someone’s eyes. Interpersonal pettiness and internal demons, while not totally avoided, are treated as private. This is especially true of Haynes’s depiction of the notoriously prickly Reed. The film touches briefly on his lifelong struggles with mental health, as well as his sexual questioning during his conservative Long Island upbringing, which led to his parents putting him through electroshock therapy. Reed’s sister, Merrill Reed Weiner, snaps at Haynes for asking probing questions about this time. “It’s simplistic and cartoonish to think there’s an easy explanation” for why Reed was the way he was, she bristles. The sequence—and Haynes’s willingness to include it at all—contrasts significantly with the recent Brian Wilson documentary Long Promised Road, in which the famously interview-shy Beach Boy is pummeled with questions by a Rolling Stone editor, supposedly his friend. Does Wilson owe a documentary audience his reflections on family tragedies?

Haynes is straightforward about ego clashes and romantic dalliances, but he always foregrounds his own distance from the subjects. It makes sense to skip past meth-hyped conflicts in the studio, so banal that they’re almost clichéd, but it occasionally feels like the people get lost in the process. As much as the passages about Nico spotlight her songwriting talents, it’s clearly difficult to contain her story in small artistically focused asides. Band manager Steve Sesnick, responsible for significant late-career tensions, is also only mentioned in passing. Since Cale is a key participant in the film, it’s easier for Haynes to be a bit tougher on Reed, who could be infamously controlling and petty. But as diplomatic as Cale is, a fleeting mention of his moodiness probably doesn’t capture the full extent of their crossfire. Haynes resists, in this way, the simplistic idea that one would need to “side” with either Cale or Reed, or that these personal conflicts should shape readings of their music. After Cale was fired from the band, Haynes shuffles through a slideshow of the Velvets posing for promotional photos in flower-power shirts, seeming to imply a sell-out montage. Reed was hoping for greater visibility (and so were the other band members—Tucker has said that she was unable to afford rent during this time), but it’s impossible to listen to a song as delicate as “Pale Blue Eyes,” the representative track Haynes chooses from their third album The Velvet Underground, and perceive it as pandering. The song comes closer to something intangible about Reed than any documentary interview ever could.

Haynes’s film circles the Velvet Underground, accumulating context like those grids of avant-garde film. The film is necessarily incomplete—many music films simply hide this by turning people into characters. It’s clear that Haynes remains most spellbound by the music and hopes that it’s all he needs to convince the uninitiated. In some montages, he seems to privilege the music over interview audio; the film collages together studio versions of songs with explosive rehearsals and modulates instruments forward and backward in the mix to explore their interplay. His most important interviewee may be the Modern Lovers front man Jonathan Richman, the living embodiment of Brian Eno’s quip that every early Velvets adopter went on to form a band. Richman tells Haynes about staking out every single Boston-area VU gig as a teenager, barraging them with questions about their gear as the musicians set up. Eventually, the band took the earnest kid under their wings: Morrison taught him guitar, and Cale produced a handful of Modern Lovers tracks. Richman recalls creative tensions behind the scenes, although Cale’s departure surprised him, but what he really wants to talk about is their sound. Clutching his guitar, he eagerly demonstrates the uniqueness of “Sister Ray”: he runs through its bass line, its chord progression, the meter of Reed’s vocals. Even if a “complete” portrait of a band proves elusive, Haynes pursues this love and excitement—for the tangled snare of Reed’s laconic cadence, Cale’s harmonic drones, Morrison’s intricate guitar attack, and Tucker’s seismic, driving bass drum. A recorded sound is a layered, electric thing: a moment in time, the spark of a collaboration, the drone of civilization.