“The Velvet Underground” stays true to the original underground rock band’s countercultural spirit

Todd Haynes’ collage-like first venture into the documentary format screens at MMoCA on October 20.

Todd Haynes’ collage-like first venture into the documentary format screens at MMoCA on October 20.

Header image:  A black-and-white split-screen image from “The Velvet Underground.” Filmmakers Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol recline on a couch next to Lou Reed (left); Mo Tucker plays drums (right).

It’s become a cliché to refer to Brian Eno’s famous quote that “the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet… I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” But the core truth of Eno’s statement remains true. While making nearly no impact on popular culture at the time, the influence of the Velvet Underground has only grown over the last 50 years. It’s impossible to think of glam rock, punk, or their splintering subgenres occurring without the seismic shift Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker created by fusing rock music with poetry and the avant-garde.

In The Velvet Underground (2021), screening on Wednesday, October 20 at 7 p.m. as part of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s Spotlight Cinema series, Todd Haynes directs a film that’s true to the countercultural spirit of the band. Assembled like an intricate collage, The Velvet Underground weaves together rare archival footage shot by the band’s manager and benefactor Andy Warhol alongside contemporaneous art films into a mesmerizing and imaginative split-screen patchwork.

Making a documentary about the Velvet Underground is a difficult task, not only because of the absence of the band’s leader Lou Reed, who died in 2013, but also the dearth of footage of the band’s performances. Most rock documentaries rely on TV appearances, concert footage, and promotional material, but the Velvet Underground were such an underground phenomenon that there’s not much footage. In interviews, Haynes has stated that he viewed these limitations as an artistic challenge, which would allow him to make a film that would bring the viewer closer to the band’s music. 

An avant-garde film collage from “The Velvet Underground.”

An avant-garde film collage from “The Velvet Underground.”

Haynes and his editors were given access to Andy Warhol Museum archives, which provided rare footage of the band that became pivotal to telling their story. Warhol’s black-and-white “screen tests,” in which he instructed his subjects to stare into the camera and try to blink as little as possible, serve as introductions to each member of the band. Other footage of them rehearsing and hanging out in Warhol’s Factory present a human side to the band and their work ethic, which were largely disguised behind their aloof public image. Modern-day interviews are confined solely to the people who were part of the scene, including surviving band members Cale and Tucker as well as avant-garde musicians La Monte Young and Henry Flynt, actress and Warhol superstar Mary Woronov, filmmaker Jonas Mekas, and VU superfan Jonathan Richman.

From the beginning Baudelaire quote and the screech of Cale’s viola, Haynes makes it clear that The Velvet Underground is a celebration of the band’s experimental roots. He spends the bulk of the film focusing on Cale and Reed’s backgrounds and the Velvets’ early period leading up to their first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967). Accompanied by the minimalist drone of La Monte Young’s ensemble, Dream Syndicate, the first third of the film is a dazzling juxtaposition of works from filmmakers like Warhol, Jack Smith, and Kenneth Anger, who help contextualize the band’s emergence from the 1960s experimental art scene. Departing from the standard rock documentary format, Haynes paints a deeper portrait of the band by immersing the viewer into the Velvet Underground’s universe, surrounding us with the radically experimental film and music of 1960s New York City.

Though The Velvet Underground is Haynes’ first documentary film, his directing style makes him a natural at the form with his work deeply grounded in the study of art and semiotics. Haynes was a prominent member of the New Queer Cinema movement of the early 1990s, and one of the core themes at the heart of his films is the subversion of popular culture through a queer lens. He explains: “Queerness was, by definition, a critique of mainstream culture. It wasn’t just a plea for a place at the table. It called into question the table itself.” This perspective makes him the ideal director to tell the story of a band centered around queer transgression and rejection of mainstream culture. Haynes’ subtext-heavy films often reflect his fascination with rock star myth-making, from the notorious unauthorized biopic Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) to the playful deconstructions of Bowie and Dylan’s public personas in Velvet Goldmine (1998) and I’m Not There (2007).

As unconventional as the band, The Velvet Underground is as much of a meticulously crafted ode to their music as the experimental community they emerged from. Haynes has stated that he “felt like the one thing we didn’t need was a film about the Velvet Underground that told us how important the Velvet Underground are.” His film reflects a conscious effort to avoid the hand-holding clichés, like voiceover narration and talking heads, that plague the rock documentary genre.

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