Velvet Underground, The: Todd Haynes’ Dazzling Documentary of the Famed Band (Cannes Film Fest 2021)

Cannes Film Fest 2021–World Premiere, Out of Competition

In his new, dazzling documentary, The Velvet Underground, the quintessentially indie filmmaker Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Carol) tells the story of the influential rock ‘n’ roll band, led by Lou Reed and John Cale, by situating their work in the broader cultural contexts of New York City of the 1960s.

The feature world-premiered out of competition at this year’s Cannes Fest, ahead of its October 15 release by Amazon in select theaters, and later on Apple TV+.

Haynes’ valid assumption is that the band was much more than just a musical phenomenon, and that in order to understand its unique creativity, it must be placed against the settings of New York in general, and Andy Warhol’s “The Factory” in particular.

Formed in 1964, the group consisted of singer-guitarist Lou Reed, multi-instrumentalist John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison, and drummer Angus MacLise; in 1965, MacLise was replaced by Moe Tucker.

The band achieved little commercial success during its existence, but it is now recognized as one of the most influential bands in rock, underground, experimental, and alternative music.

Andy Warhol, priest of Pop Art, became their manager in 1966, and they served as the house band at “The Factory,” and in his traveling multimedia show, “Exploding Plastic Inevitable.”

Their debut album, “The Velvet Underground & Nico” (the German singer and model), was released in 1967 to poor commercial sales, but it has since drawn wider acclaim.

They released three more albums, “White Light/White Heat” (1968), “The Velvet Underground” (1969), and “Loaded” (1970), with Doug Yule replacing Cale for the final two. However, none of the trio performed up to the record labels’ expectations.

Technically, Haynes makes impressive use of split-screen, experimental montage, and densely-layered images and sounds.

One of the film’s first interviewees is avant-garde director Jonas Mekas (to whom the film is dedicated), who says: “We were not part of the counterculture; we were the culture.”

And, indeed, the group’s provocative subject matter, musical experimentation, and nihilistic worldview proved influential in the future development of punk rock and new wave music.

Velvet Underground, an impressive evocation of a particular time and place, serves as a suitable companion piece to Haynes’ 1998 glam-rock Velvet Goldmine (which also premiered in Cannes) and his 2007 Bob Dylan bio-drama I’m Not There (which played at the Venice Fest), two inventive works that defied mainstream conventions.

The new documentary draws on literary influences that inspired Reed’s songwriting, among them Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Ginsberg, Burroughs, all figures that have also shaped the artistic views of Haynes, a pioneer of the New Queer Cinema of the 1990s.

In its observation of the creative energy of the time, Haynes’ film offers a look into a radical art movement, by focusing on the behind-the-scenes of one great band.

Much of the text comes from the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, including black-and-white footage of Reed and fellow VU founder John Cale, some of which shot by Warhol himself. Haynes, his cinematographer Ed Lachman, and his editors Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz, have use that footage in a mode that’s both engaging and immersive.

Reed, guitarist Sterling Morrison and guest vocalist Nico have all passed away, leaving only musicologist Cale and drummer Maureen “Moe” Tucker to provide some invaluable perspectives on the past.

Benefiting from the fact that someone in the Warhol entourage was always filming, VU provides unusual representation of the core members and of other artists and musicians.

Warhol’s contribution to the work of the artists in his orbit remains debatable. For example, in the 1967 debut album with Nico. Warhol’s banana print adorns the cover and he is credited as producer. However, Cale notes that Warhol was the producer only because he was just present in the studio, but no more.

Even so, there’s no doubt that the band’s association with the “Factory” elevated their profile, and landed them work at major art events and museums, even when their commercial success left much to be desired.

Warhol’s pairing of Nico and the band was helpful too: her cool look and chic demeanor and Warhol’s cover art played major roles in securing record deals. If Reed was irritated, it was because Nico could not hold her pitch, which forced Cale to spend a lot of time and energy in figuring out “what to do” with her voice.

Overall, Reed emerges as a brilliant but difficult creative genius. Often high on drugs and/or ill, he was determined to become a rock star through his lyrics and his music. His pre-famous life—depression, anxiety attacks, electroconvulsive therapy–are discussed by his sister, Merrill Reed Weiner, who refutes the belief that their parents approved of the treatment in order to suppress their son’s homosexual urges.

Haynes is not the first director or writer to suggest that Reed’s sexuality (or bi-sexuality) was ambiguous. This was evident in his writing homoerotic poetry, and playing with youth bands at a Long Island gay bar, “Hayloft.”

The birth of the band took place at the Lower East Side, on 56 Ludlow Street, where Reed and Cale shared a loft. They hanged out at the same bars that were frequented by other avant-garde artists: Warhol, Jasper Johns, Jack Smith.

The doc suggest that Cale’s formal musical education had broadened Reed’s skills, by exposing him to the influences of the likes of John Cage (choreographer Merce Cunningham’s collaborator and real-life partner) and Erik Satie.

Cale also talks about frictions within the band, including his own conflicts with Reed. The crash between Warhol and Reed is viewed as the reason for Nico’s eventual exit.

There are also insights from Jonathan Richman of The Modern Lovers, who analyzes the complex layers of the recordings. According to him, a unique quality of the band’s sounds was their bare-bones approach, which eschewed added instruments or session musicians; they avoided recording anything that couldn’t be recreated on stage.

Haynes cites Brian Eno’s quote: “The Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one went out and started a band.” He succeeds in capturing their long-lasting impact, despite brief existence. Over the years, songs like “Sweet Jane,” “Candy Says,” “Sunday Morning,” “Venus in Furs” and “I’m Waiting for the Man” have become classics, and the band is now recognized for its transgressive influence on various music movements.

Haynes and longtime producer Christine Vachon, who had never made a documentary before, have recreated vividly the history of the band as a group of creative and complex artists, living in transformative–even revolutionary—times.

Ultimately, Velvet Underground pays tribute to the titular band as well as to all forms of experimental arts, while not neglecting the zeitgeist that enabled their very existence.