The Velvet Underground, Todd Haynes
Image courtesy of Criterion

The Alchemy of the Velvet Underground’s Art

In The Velvet Underground documentary, Todd Haynes shows the music catapulting across time and space to Andy Warhol’s Factory, where the alchemy worked its magic.

The Velvet Underground
Todd Haynes
13 December 2022

During the brief moment I played in a punk band in the early 2000s, we had a completely unwarranted first gig bestowed upon us, opening for a popular underground band at our college campus. We had written four or five original songs that extended our set to a hefty 15 minutes. We landed such auspicious beginnings due to our drummer striking a friendship with a local music manager who either heard us practice in our basement or at an open mic night doing covers. Either way, he was hooked to our sound and landed us an opening slot barely a month after we formed.

Our set proceeded accordingly. None of us could recall how any of the songs progressed, often leaving the five of us playing different sections of the same song at once or one of us shifting to a new riff from another song out of pure frustration despite not finishing the first one. With a healthy dose of embarrassment and self-respect, our drummer and two singers fled the stage around ten minutes in as the music devolved into a cacophonous wall of sound. The bassist and I, however, refused to abandon our posts. In a later debriefing over beers, we both figured this might be our first and last gig, so we should make the most out of it.

One thing I particularly enjoyed about our sound was that our bassist had no training. As a result, they unlocked sonic possibilities from their instrument that those with any musical training would have dutifully avoided. The bass often provided unexpected counterpoints to the miasma of feedback I created through my amplifier and digital delay pedal.

After wallowing in our noise and holding our ground for another ten or so minutes., we both walked off stage. I remember feeling an equal measure of embarrassment and pride for finishing what we had started. A member of the audience who miraculously endured the entire set told me, “Wow. That was like very Velvet Underground.” At the time, this seemed like a huge disservice to the band, which had always been one of my favorites. It still does to some extent.

However, while watching Todd Haynes’ new documentary about the Velvet Underground, I realized that perhaps that fan’s comment wasn’t so off the mark. The Velvet Underground was always pushing the sonic possibilities of rock beyond any recognizable form to enter a near-transcendent realm of sound during the band’s best musical moments. Our band also had little to no concern for traditional song structures as we shunned traditional bass playing, guitar chords, and a recognizable drumbeat. Holding our ground on that stage that night was, in part, a dare and a declaration to ourselves. It was a tacit commitment to our musical possibilities by embracing the chaotic sounds we were producing, believing that one day we might be able to corral them into something better, into a future not yet fully glimpsed.

Haynes poignantly captures this sense of sonic possibility and promise during the opening moments of The Velvet Underground. A black screen appears. We hear the opening notes of John Cale’s electric viola that defines one of the band’s most musically exploratory song, “Venus in Furs”. A quote in white text appears: “music fathoms the sky .. baudelaire.” It, in part, describes the ethereal sounds we hear. It also serves as a quiet assertion, as its lower-case lettering implies, a commitment to the transcendental possibilities that all music should aspire to, as the very existence of the Velvet Underground, during its early years, signified to those who were really listening.

Cale’s playing grows more erratic and louder as feedback builds while his bow noisily rubs against the viola’s strings. Before reaching a crescendo, the sequence inexplicably cuts to the 1950s-60s show I’ve Got a Secret. Reality intrusively interrupts, silencing this sound that is both abstract and immediate. We soon learn that this episode of I’ve Got a Secret features Cale, who has recently performed a nearly 19-hour concert where he repeated a piece of music by Erik Satie 840 times.

Cale plays the dissonant piece of music on piano for the guests and studio audience. Reaction shots follow of the guests looking on with a mix of incomprehension and smug disdain. Yet the film then introduces the split screen, a stylistic device that dominates throughout it. The left section shows the guests reacting while Cale plays in the background. On the right side, a strip of white film leader rolls until a close-up of the staid youthful face of Lou Reed materializes, staring impassively back at us from one of Andy Warhol’s screen tests. Haynes shows the music catapulting out of the moment, reaching across time and space from the cold confines of the commercial television studio to the open terrain of Warhol’s Factory, where artistic exploration was welcome, and the relationship between Cale and Reed could crystalize into the Velvet Underground.

The guests’ reaction in this sequence to Cale’s music resonates with a later moment, when one of Lou Reed’s friends questions him about his gay-themed poetry he publishes within Evergreen Review during the early 1960s. His friend asks: “Where does all this degrading idea of sex come from?” Reed replies: “You couldn’t possibly understand it. You’re becoming a Republican.” Haynes’ The Velvet Underground establishes Cale and Reed as two halves of a new whole, where Cale pushes sonic elements beyond recognition into new terrain, while Reed smuggles explicitly darker lyrics and poetry into commercial music.

Although Reed is often wrongly associated as the driving force behind the band, Cale’s contribution becomes abundantly clear when we hear an early demo of the band’s song, “I’m Waiting for My Man”.  Although the lyrics remain the same, Reed plays his guitar with a country rhythm and sings with a slight twang. Cale reflects in the documentary that although he loved Reed’s lyrics, “the music is not backing up what these lyrics are about.” As a result, he would manipulate various musical arrangements until they alchemized a new meaning and feeling to Reed’s lyrics that they would have lacked on their own. Add into the mix Nico’s stone voice and statuesque allure to finalize the otherworldly dimensions of the band’s sound and presence.

The Velvet Underground embodies a desire to explore questions, not answers. Republicans, squares, game show hosts, and all the rest who want to comfortably nestle within the bounds of commercial culture and tradition relentlessly pursue questions to explain away what doesn’t make sense to them. It’s their way of exorcizing the unknown. The Velvet Underground, on the other hand, embraces ambiguity and artistic and personal exploration, both in its content and form. The film sprinkles its intentions throughout, with its interviewees often swatting away easy explanations. Reed’s sister, Merrill Reed Weiner, defensively states: “So when you ask about Lou in that time, I get upset because of the misconceptions that take place. And because it doesn’t do him service, and it doesn’t do my parents service. And it is simplistic and cartoonish to think that there’s an easy explanation.”

To avoid such easy explanations, The Velvet Underground often splinters into split screens or even multiple 12-channel sequences to suggest the complexity of the cultural moment and the nebulous interrelations between the band members and other creative personalities. Critic Greil Marcus, in his excellent essay that accompanies the Blu-Ray, captures the visual complexity on the screen when writing about the final form of the song, “Heroin”, which most consider the Velvet Underground’s signature piece:

In “Heroin,” Reed begins to sing, and a split screen opens off the Warhol image, filled with sped-up color footage of Warhol talking like a machine wound up too tight. Then again, in color, two montages: on the left, again, sped-up film of the Factory, Warhol works mounted on the walls; on the right, other work on the floor. As the tempo of the music picks up, both screens quicken even more in a montage of constant busyness, hurry, time running out, what’s cool in art and hair, and clothes changing so rapidly that if you don’t get it done today it’ll be out of style tomorrow.

Like much of Marcus’ best writing, his description aligns and morphs into the form of the cultural object under analysis. It represents writing not from some distant outside point-of-view but instead inhabits the moment and object under analysis burrowing out.

Although the film ostensibly documents the formation and career of the Velvet Underground, it is as much about the cultural moment that made them, The Factory, Warhol, and all other experimental art of the time possible. Like many moments of artistic and musical innovation, such as the early 1920s in New York and Paris, artists fed off each other’s inspiration and work as musicians, painters, writers, and anyone else who embraced the exploration of art in their daily lives comingled, wading in and out of the various locales that they gravitated to.

56 Ludlow Street symbolizes one of the cultural centers of gravity in The Velvet Underground. In the upper left section of the screen, Jack Smith, experimental filmmaker of Flaming Creatures (1963), which would eventually get banned, lounges in a leopard print outfit on a couch. The following words unfurl across the middle of the black screen: “in early 1964, john cale moved in with composer tony conrad at 56 ludlow street. filmmaker jack smith also lived there among many other artists and musicians.” We hear Smith in voiceover, “And at 56 Ludlow Street, I, Jack Smith, met Angus and Tony.” The rest of the screen soon fills with images of Tony Conrad as Henry Flynt, another artist in the group. Images rapidly flash across the screen: Cale on Viola, a boarded-up brick exterior with a winding fire escape, footage from various experimental films like Flaming Creatures, and brief snippets from the laboratory scene in Bride of Frankenstein, suggesting not only a laboratory of artistic innovation but also sexual experimentation due to the film’s rather explicit homoeroticism and James Whale, its director, being gay, and his queer film if there ever was one that hovers in an amorphous zone of sexuality that people like Lou Reed and many others at 56 Ludlow also inhabited. Testimonials from those who lived and visited the apartment pepper throughout the sequence, their voices complementing one another, capturing a sense of the collective energy that suffused that moment.

The Velvet Underground engages in an impossible quest – perhaps like most documentaries but more explicit in this case – of capturing an uncontainable cultural moment and energy. Singer-songwriter Jonathan Richmond, who became a dutiful student of the Velvet Underground at 16 as he hung out with the band and trailed along to many of their shows, approximates the difficulty of relaying the power of the moment when speaking about the overtones the band produced during its shows. He earnestly explains, “You could watch them play, and there would be overtones you couldn’t account for. You’d hear a fuzz lead over that [the rhythm]. And then you’d hear the bass line. But there’d be these other sounds in the room, and you could look at everyone, and you were just—where is it coming from? It was this group sound.”

In addition to relaying a certain cultural moment in the mid-’60s in New York City and the band’s rise, The Velvet Underground is also a cloaked autobiography of the director. Haynes’ career path matches Lou Reed’s artistic trajectory from experimental origins during a specific cultural upheaval to eventual commercial fame. This is where Marcus’ essay misses the mark. He claims that after Cale was thrown out of the band and Warhol fired from being its manager, they produced nothing but “novelty records” with some good commercial songs but not with the same musical experimentation the first two records possessed. 

Although I agree with Marcus’ assessment of the band’s trajectory, The Velvet Underground does not frame Cale’s departure as a decline. Warhol assistant Joseph Freeman’s observation more closely aligns with that of the film: “Every member was an equal contributor in their own right [during the first two albums]. Now they were like a regular rock ‘n’ roll band. And they had a brilliant, creative person totally in charge.” Rather than a decline, the film positions this later recalibration of the band as something different and new, a venture into a more commercial terrain that would have been impossible with someone like Cale as part of the band since his musical structures and progressions were quite simply too strange to launch the band and Lou Reed from niche avant-garde group to eventual stardom. Reed never hid his ambition for success and popularity. The Velvet Underground, in its original configuration, was never going to get him there.

Similarly, Haynes started making films in the late ’80s during the formation of ACT UP, an innovative group of AIDS activists, artists, and intellectuals who reinvigorated direct action protest into something more playful and angry to confront head-on the homophobia of public officials who refused to respond to a crisis that was decimating gay communities across the United States. Simultaneously, New Queer Cinema ignites across screens with innovative works by directors like Gregg Araki, Tom Kalin, Sadie Benning, Cheryl Dunye, and Todd Haynes. Furthermore, some of these activists and filmmakers become a part of academia to produce queer film studies that can more accurately analyze a new moment of resistance, artistic exploration, and sexual experimentation.

Haynes makes some of his most experimental works during this period. Superstar (1987) masterfully uses Barbie and Ken dolls to reenact the Karen Carpenter story poignantly. Poison (1991) intertwines three different filmic genres and sequences—horror, documentary, and art film—to produce a film that allegorically relays the fears and passions of being gay during a time of the AIDS crisis and homophobia. Yet knowing Haynes’ eventual career path, Poison now can’t help but feel like a calling card announcing the director’s ambitions to Hollywood, showing how he could skillfully emulate any genre produced from the commercial sector with an extremely low budget.

As Haynes’ career advanced, his films often adhered to more traditional and accessible forms, with the likes of Far from Heaven (2002), Mildred Pierce (2011), and Carol (2015 –, all excellent in their own right. He occasionally would dabble with experimentation, such as in 2007’s I’m Not There, where six or seven actors portray different stages of Bob Dylan’s career with Cate Blanchet’s representation of Dylan’s 1960s androgynous period perhaps encapsulating this moment in a strikingly accurate way.

The Velvet Underground can be seen as yet another return to Haynes’ more experimental roots. But it also offers a cloaked alibi for his commercial success, with Reed’s success standing in for his own. Marcus’ dower assessment of the second half of the film as devolving into the clichés of a Behind the Music documentary seems off-the-mark, both in terms of how the documentary formally refuses to do this with its experimental split screen style, and by only alluding to Reed’s later success rather than basking in it.

Criterion’s Blu-ray provides quite of bit of extras for anyone interested in this cultural moment. Interviews not excerpted within The Velvet Underground with the experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas, the actress Mary Woronov, and singer-songwriter Jonathan Richmond, add to our understanding of the times and their interactions with the band’s members. A rather lengthy and meandering zoom interview occurs between Todd Haynes, John Cale, and Maureen Tucker, the main drummer for the band.

Additionally, Mekas’ footage of an award presentation to Warhol in The Factory in 1964, along with excerpts from his Walden: Diaries, Notes, and Sketches (1964-1969), accompanies the Blu-ray. Piero Heliczer’s Venus in Furs (1965) also shows some brief footage of the Velvet Underground playing intermixed with some interminable, boring home movie sequences.

Haynes’ The Velvet Underground straddles the line between a celebration of artistic experimentation and innovation and an acceptance of this as a legitimate career path to greater success and commercial prospects. Marcus’ ambivalent review of the film—celebrating its first half while standing somewhat aloof to its later section—relays the film’s uncertain way of navigating these twin poles. But since the film ultimately is more interested in asking questions than providing answers, it can skirt having to resolve these tensions between artistic experimentation and career ambition by simply leaving them on the screen for us to consider long after the final notes of the band have faded from our ears.