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  • Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

At a press screening of The Velvet Underground, I poked fun at a serious-looking colleague, “So did you prep by listening to all extant recordings in chronological order?” His immediate response: no need, because he has it all committed to memory – at which point someone else butted in to advocate for Doug Yule. There’s always a bigger fan around the corner when it comes to rock icons, and Todd Haynes shows his mettle in tackling another venerated subject after Bob Dylan in I’m Not There (2007). Just as that kaleidoscopic movie exploded stable notions of the biographical film, so does The Velvet Underground put standard, tribute-style music documentary to shame by plunging headlong into the cultural fusion that fueled the band.

Haynes begins with a simmering tension and a sense of chance to befit the odd-couple pairing of Welsh émigré John Cale and Long Island’s own Lou Reed. Cale materializes in a black-and-white clip from a game show, where he’s a novelty for having played an Erik Satie piece hundreds of times (per the composition’s instructions). Reed’s first impact on screen, telegraphing a key figure in his rise, is his entry in Warhol’s living-portrait Screen Tests. He stares out silently in black and white, smoldering yet tender in his youth, not yet the rock dragon of later years.

Reed’s image occupies the right half of a boxed split-screen – a technique Haynes will keep using to introduce others in the New York scene, appropriately enough for its rich landscape of underground filmmaking (such as Warhol’s own double-projection Chelsea Girls, 1966). No one, however, will match Reed’s electricity here: something, we sense, is going to happen. 

The Velvet Underground (2021)

That Screen Test, of course, was shot when the Velvet Underground was already a going concern, but Haynes traces Cale and Reed’s paths before they joined forces: how they emerged from classical training run amok and impatient rock-star dreams, respectively. Even when the subsequent details might be familiar to many fans – Reed’s studies under the great Delmore Schwartz, his comfort at gay hangouts, his electro-shock treatments – Haynes avoids the inertness of simply daisy-chaining talking-heads and mines the most out of archives.

Using the whole field of the screen, he weaves together a tapestry of sound and image, folding in a snippet of European Son here, what looks like a clip of Direct Cinema pioneer D.A. Pennebaker’s Daybreak Express (1953) there, the Screen Tests, photo and album artifacts, silences and, yes, well-distilled interviews from colleagues and friends – whether avant-film godfather Jonas Mekas, Reed’s sister Merrill Reid Weiner, classmate Richard Mishkin, singer Jackson Browne or critic Amy Taubin. The cinematic orchestration prepares us for the ferment of the musical, visual and literary avant-garde that – like the conditions in Earth’s early days – gave rise to this new life form called the Velvet Underground.

Where did the likes of Heroin, Sister Ray or All Tomorrow’s Parties come from? It’s impossible to reduce the Velvets to a single source but Haynes selects one font in minimalism, and especially the mesmeric focus of LaMonte Young and his drone experimentation. The film deftly sketches a continuity between the drone and the riff of rock’n’roll – both musical forms seemingly simple or straightforward to describe, yet compulsive listening – all of it harmonizing with the heart and soul of Reed’s street poetry and outsider portraiture.

The Velvet Underground (2021)

Warhol was crucial for providing a platform for the Velvet Underground (as Reed has elsewhere attested), and for introducing Nico’s mausoleum voice to the mix, a pastiche producerly gesture that leaned into the band’s trance-like possibilities. Haynes’s talent here is in making you understand and feel these connections beyond literal description. But the film also respects the mystery behind the Velvets’ most perfect tracks – the group sound that is greater than the sum of any parts, as Modern Lover frontman and early superfan Jonathan Richman puts it.

Cale stands out among the interviews, appearing in video whereas the late, prickly Reed drops in with occasional wry or dry audio remarks. But Haynes noticeably restores drummer Moe Tucker to her deserved status as integral to the band, whose songs could rhythmically range from stomp to rumble to ritual. She weighs in on the shake-up when Cale was cast out and Doug Yule brought in – the break that defines the film’s final third, which is avowedly more conventional in winding down the band’s history. We hear how Reed evidently hoped for the band to gain broader appeal and fame, escaping Warhol’s orbit, but it was not to be. Haynes concludes with a tremendously affecting coda of what looks like a 1980s-era chat between Reed and Warhol, hanging out and reminiscing, the stakes lower and the cool utterly effortless.

One can imagine a dirtier, somehow more street version of the Velvet Underground saga, something to match the candid (Candy-ed?) hunger for and curiosity about human experience that’s in Reed’s songs (not to mention a bit more on the originality of the music itself). Yet the masterful melodic and lyrical storytellers in Cale, Reed, and company find an appreciative chronicler in Haynes, who accomplishes an elegant feat of storytelling without diminishing the band’s quiddity.

Further reading

“Rearrange their faces and give them all another name”: on Bob Dylan and I’m Not There

As Bob Dylan turns 80, we republish this piece from our January 2008 issue, in which Dylan scholar Michael Gray gives his verdict on Todd Haynes’s appropriately elusive, Dylanesque spin on the biopic, I’m Not There.

By Michael Gray

“Rearrange their faces and give them all another name”: on Bob Dylan and I’m Not There

Sight & Sound Summer 2021

In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.

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