It’s been quite the year for acclaimed directors helming music documentaries, swift on the heels of Edgar Wright’s Sparks Brothers and ahead of Peter Jackson’s Beatles Miniseries Get Back, Todd Haynes of Carol and Dark Waters fame has helmed his own in the shape of The Velvet Underground, depicting the brief but hugely impactful New York-based group fronted by the late great Lou Reed and featuring the German singer Nico on their eponymous and highly influential debut. The group’s other initial members were guitarist Sterling Morrison drummer Moe Tucker. The group released five albums between 1967 and 1973 and are now often regarded as one of the greatest artists of all time.
The film acts as much as a showcase of the wider New York subculture of the ’60s and ’70s, as it does for the background of the group and its members. As a result, there are reoccurring references to key locales and events from the era interspersed with archive footage. The predominant focus is, of course, Andy Warhol and his factory scene, as well as Lou Reed’s involvement in New York’s gay scene.
As a record of New York, this film gives some fascinating insights into the city prior to the summer of love and the revolutionary music of the ’60s and ’70s, revealing a grimy underbelly that seemed to suit The Velvet Underground. Far from being a glamourous escape, this was perhaps a city people wanted to escape from, as John Cale recounts his dismay on his first visit to the city.
The sedate early pace of the film is a pleasure as it takes much of the first half to reach the recording of the group’s debut album. The first album takes up much of the focus. The build-up introducing each member, in turn, helps set the scene and showcase the talents each member brought, be it John Cale’s more classical and avant-garde background, Lou Reed’s frenetic improvisational approach to the group’s material as well as Nico’s distinctive vocal style and dress sense which acted as a refreshing contrast to the groups more sombre outfit.
If anything, the overt focus on the build-up to and impact of the first album overshadows the following releases. It would perhaps have been intriguing to see more of the fallout from Cale and Reed’s ego clashes which resulted in Cale leaving after two albums. Instead, albums like Loaded and The Velvet Underground get more fleeting mentions. This is perhaps a drawback of the film’s length and also of the sheer amount of iconography needed to fill a documentary on the group.
Lou Reed perhaps inevitably gets more of a focus towards the film’s denouement, but certainly, in the initial stages of the film, John Cale receives his fair share of the running time. Nico perhaps suffers the most from a lack of background, although we learn about her work as a model and actress prior to the group, including a role in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.
Haynes cleverly lets the film play out in continuous split-screen, interweaving footage from the era, archive material from the band and the member’s childhoods and an assortment of interviews with surviving band members and key industry figures, including David Bowie, who along with Iggy Pop would work closely with Lou Reed on his Berlin-era of albums including the iconic Transformer.
In many ways, the film works strongest at approaching what made the group so radically different to many other bands of the era, with members poking fun at the summer of love and west coast sound of the late 60s. In addition, there were glimpses at the influences of each member in turn and how these married together in a wall of sound unlike anything audiences had heard before.
The Velvet Underground is a solid and well-made showcase of the group and will surely please diehards and may offer an opportunity for beginners to dive into the group’s back catalogue. Once the slightly chaotic opening has settled down, the film provides some real insight into New York at the beginning of the 1960s cultural revolution especially surrounding the arts and music scene. However, Cinema is often mentioned, and clearly, all involved were well versed in the arts as a whole. This is the documentary that such an influential and era-defining group deserve.
The Velvet Underground played as part of The London Film Festival 2021