In the biographies of many great bands, there are moments of happenstance whose random mundanity belies the epoch-defining results. Paul McCartney playing an Eddie Cochran song to impress skiffle band member John Lennon. Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten knocking around Malcolm McLaren’s SEX store before the impresario slotted them into the Sex Pistols.
As told in Todd Haynes’ riveting and hypnotic The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed and John Cale first made music together because Pickwick Records—a budget label for whom Reed was an in-house songwriter—needed a band to play a song of Reed’s they thought could be a hit. So Cale and a couple of other guys from the downtown art scene that Reed was already orbiting, formed the Primitives with Reed. They launched a gloriously failed mission to make “The Ostrich”, a catchy and garagey Sonics-like thumper about a supposed dance craze (“Hey, put your hands up / Upside your knees, now do the ostrich”) into a hit.
That never happened. But the Velvet Underground did. This means that no matter how much effort Andy Warhol later put into promoting the band, their existence could be due less to the superstar-minting denizen of The Factory than a decidedly unhip outfit that specialized in 99-cent records to sell at Woolworths. Or it could mean that Reed and Cale were fated to come together and knock the music world on its ear. And all thanks to the Ostrich, a dance which was very possibly not performed by a single person in the 1960s, but which is comically rendered in Haynes’ film by Reed’s sister, Merrill Reed Weiner, before she collapses in laughter.
There is not a lot of laughter in The Velvet Underground. But even though this is a documentary about a dark and squalling art-rock quartet that took its name from a scandalous 1963 book about fetishes, it is fairly bursting with life, passion, and the burning need to make art. Reed was an aggressively ambitious and wildly insecure Long Island kid whose dreams of being a poet and a rock star sent him down seemingly divergent paths.
He inhaled outsider writers like William S. Burrough, Hubert Selby Jr., and Rimbaud while also bingeing on doo-wop groups, teaching himself guitar, and learning the craft of down-and-dirty rock ‘n’ roll. Hungry for experience, Reed hung out in gay clubs (whether his sexual ambiguity was genuine or a provocation is explored but left open by Haynes), hunted for heroin in Harlem, and made himself known to the clique of artists, poets, and filmmakers who congregated at apartments like the one at 56 Ludlow Street where Cale was living in the early ’60s.
A Welsh-born viola player with a slightly otherworldly and grand air that belied his coal-mining family roots, Cale (one of the two surviving band members interviewed by Haynes) came to New York in 1963 and was entranced by the experimentation going on in the art world. A classically trained minimalist, he fell in with John Cage-inspired provocateurs like the Theatre of Eternal Music, who thrilled to the ideas of breaking down traditional music structures, focusing on harmonics, and holding notes for seemingly improbable lengths of time to create sinuous symphonies of drone.
Cale made an appearance on the TV show I’ve Got a Secret, a clip of which is included by Haynes, with his secret being that he staged with Cage the first full 18-hour performance of Erik Satie’s “Vexations”. The other guest’s secret was that he was the only person who stayed for the whole show. Just as Reed’s moody poet side worked in tandem with his rock star dreams, Cale’s interests in experimental composition existed alongside his appreciation for the exciting new ground that mainstream rock ‘n’ roll was breaking into. While the two were happy to bang out a novelty song like “The Ostrich”, they had other ideas in mind.
To recreate the crashing symphony of experimentation that birthed the Velvet Underground, Haynes turns his documentary into something that looks like it could have been projected on a bedsheet tacked to the wall of a rat-trap art gallery below New York City’s 14th Street. It’s an immersive bricolage of frame-within-frame visuals and overlapping dialogue and audio clips occasionally studded with reminders that you are watching a documentary about a rock ‘n’ roll band when something like “Venus in Furs” comes blasting out of the speakers with a banshee howl.
Haynes frequently splits the screen down the middle, running footage of the band on one side while the other shows a close-up of the person talking. Some of that footage is shot in grainy low-definition color by Haynes and sometimes it is black-and-white clips of the “screen tests” that Warhol shot of people he hung out with. The result is an immersive experience that sweeps over you in crashing waves.
Haynes is a gifted mimic of various ’50s and ‘60s cinematic styles, as he showed with 2007’s I’m Not There and 2002’s Far From Heaven. But rather than approximating the style of, say, Douglas Sirk, here he is trying to impersonate cult experimenters like Jonas Mekas, whose groundbreaking shorts helped inspire Warhol. It’s an effective technique and helps to recreate the dynamic creative landscape in which the Velvet Underground formed.
The late Mekas himself, interviewed here, gives an idea of the level of ambition that the New York art scene had at the time. He dismisses the idea of it being any kind of underground or subculture: “We are the culture!” he announces. Given the number of bands later influenced by the Velvet Underground, he was not far off the mark.
The Velvet Underground lays out the history of the band in chronological fashion but dispenses with a lot of framing or timelines, so it is not entirely clear what is happening when. This approach helps approximate what it was probably like for the band at the time. Cale and drummer Maureen Tucker, then an anomaly as a female rock drummer and even now still fiery as she grouses about how they hated “fucking hippies”, take viewers through the ups and downs of being essentially the house band for Warhol’s druggie light show discos like the Exploding Plastic Inevitable events in the mid-to-late ’60s.
Though Reed later resented that connection (grousing semi-jokingly that people thought Warhol played guitar for them) and others resented Warhol’s insistence on including Euro-chanteuse Nico on vocals (a critique that Haynes pushes against, showing her as an artist in her own right), it’s clear that without Warhol making the banana art for the first album’s cover and keeping record company suits away, the Velvet Underground may not have ever gotten off the ground. With Tucker’s tribal drumming, Cale’s haunting strings, and Reed’s mix of vibrant lyrics about self-hatred, wastrels, and drugs, and skeletal structures (“we don’t put things in, we take things out,” Reed said), the squalling sonic assault and evocative curiosity of their 1967 debut was far from the Mamas and the Papas. They took the downtown art happening weirdness and set it to a speedy-then-drony go-go-go beat. With a heavy focus on the band’s first two albums, the film gives ample sonic evidence of why the Velvet Underground’s status endures.
Haynes steers away from any detailed this-then-that documentation in favor of a free-flowing imaginative sprawl where different people’s memories fade in and out of the narrative. Conflicts erupt as in any rock band biopic, with Cale, in particular, relating the difficulties of connecting with such a spiky hot-then-cold personality as Reed (who summarily chucked him from the band in 1968). “Try and be nice, he’d hate you more, Cale said.
Registering with an almost too-bright vividness is the unlikely figure of goofball singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman, who shows up to recall how he became the Velvet Underground’s mascot of sorts during their many shows in Boston. His giddy and fannish appreciation of what the band was trying to accomplish before they flamed out in 1972 shows that no matter how dark their music might seem, it still delivers joy.