Review: 'The Velvet Underground' Looks Back on a Vibrant NYC Scene with Scintillating Style

by Lewis Whittington

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday October 15, 2021

Lou Reed from archival photography from "The Velvet Underground"
Lou Reed from archival photography from "The Velvet Underground"  (Source:Apple TV+)

The Velvet Underground remains one of the most mythologized rock groups of the '60s. For a time the group was the main attraction (beside Andy) of Warhol's legendary Factory studios, where everyone from Rudolf Nureyev to Jacqueline Kennedy flocked to see them.

Filmmaker Todd Haynes makes a fascinating film — simply titled "The Velvet Underground" — about the Velvets, but he also documents a specific era in New York when it emerged as a mecca for avant-garde artists of every stripe — and Haynes does so in his scintillating cinematic style.

Haynes films always have distinctly varied cinematic template, winning multiple accolades at international festivals with films like "Poison" with its vivid dramatization of gay eroticism à la Jean Genet. Haynes' "Far From Heaven" dealt with homophobia and racism in '50s America, with a visual style of that era in saturated technicolor.

At the center of this new documentary are portraits of innovative British composer John Cale and, of course, dark star lead singer Lou Reed. Musically, the pair were the driving artistic forces behind the group.

The film tracks Reed's early life as a self-taught musician who had a hit "Doo-wop" song on the air while he was still in high school. Reed's parents thought he was gay, and he was subjected to electro-shock treatment to make him straight. (In other words, he was being tortured, both mentally and physically.) But despite being subjected to this, Reed continued to be the social rebel.

John Cale, on the other hand, was classically trained, but was experimenting with musical deconstruction and experimental musical forms, a movement led in the U.S. by renegade composer John Cage.

Later, Reed flirted with the perception that he was a gay rock star, most famously in his early solo career leading up to his breakthrough album, "Transformer." What was a coy pose? What was reality behind the scenes? The answer is not disclosed in the film. Haynes leaves that, and disclosure of the extent of Reed's drug use during the Velvet years, on the cutting room floor. But there is fascinating archival film of the band first playing in gay clubs, as it documents the louche atmospherics, the attire, and some liberated gay club dances of the time.

John Cale talks about the musical techniques that made the band distinctive from the start, as well as his creative relationship with Reed. The other band members — guitarist Sterling Morrison, drummer Maureen Tucker, and bassist Doug Yule — are all interviewed about being in the band. Celebrities from John Waters, to David Bowie (who produced "Transformer") also weigh in.

Haynes' montages of private film footage of Nico and Warhol are intoxicating, and soundtracked with some of the Velvet Underground's classic tunes, including "Sweet Jane," "Heroin," and "Waiting for the Man."

Cale is as forthright in his recollections about the problems, personal as well as professional, that broke up the band. Rock star Jackson Browne recalls his days as a sideman with the band, and gives candid insight about the band's dynamics and Reed's character. Haynes achieves a poignant portrait of Nico, whose allure is likened to Greta Garbo and whose distinct vocals gave the band a singular mystique, but who nonetheless caused internal rifts.

The many interviews eventually distract from the visual rhythm of the film, but Haynes avoids stasis toward the end with a dazzling crescendo of film images that fast forward through the lives of the principals after their glory days in The Velvet Underground.

"The Velvet Underground" opens in theaters Oct. 15 & on AppleTV+

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.