“How in the world were they making that sound?” To answer Jonathan Richman’s affectionate question about his favorite band, Todd Haynes’s new documentary The Velvet Underground lingers lovingly on the mid-’60s. Back then, John Cale was in league with composers like La Monte Young (who makes an appearance) and Tony Conrad. Meanwhiel Lou Reed, a self-confessed aspiring rock star, hung around gay bars for company and took his girlfriend to trap houses so he would have something to write about. Despite the originality of such stories in this early stretch of the film, the band is envisioned not merely as a collision between Cale and Reed’s disparate lives and influences, but as both a part of and a creation of New York’s avant-garde arts scene.
The scale of this time is rendered ingeniously through an almost nonstop use of split screens. If every photo and clip used in this film were to appear one by one, its runtime would likely triple. The Velvet Underground includes not just new interviews shot by Ed Lachman, but also countless photographs, dozens of films and screen tests by Andy Warhol, and a few dozen more by filmmakers such as Jonas Mekas, Marie Menken, Jack Smith, Harry Smith, Storm de Hirsch, and Maya Deren. These works are presented mostly in fragments within the split images, allowing them to serve as texture and impression of the band, the members, Warhol’s Factory, the venues, and a famed New York era, bringing it to life with remarkable authenticity and vividness.
It’s almost a shame, then, that when the film gets to the Velvet Underground’s studio albums, it treads more familiar narratives, including a somewhat shameful overlooking of the band’s Doug Yule era. What is lost in the storytelling is counterbalanced by the killer soundtrack of Velvets songs, which run almost without pause in the second half. Still, it’s hard not to wonder why Haynes, who parodied conventional biographical documentary in his very first music film (Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story) and all but rejected narrativized biopics in his third (I’m Not There), plays it so straight with his favorite band.
Only when the film concludes with the obligatory “Where are they now?” postscript does the reason become clear. There’s Warhol, dead at 57 of cardiac arrhythmia in 1987; Nico, dead in a cycling accident at age 50 just a year later; Sterling Morrison, dead at 53 of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1995. Lou Reed succumbed to liver disease in 2013 at 71, older than his peers but by no means old. Haynes and Lachman, his longtime cinematographer, had time to interview Mekas, but he too left us in 2019, aged 96. Though Cale and Maureen Tucker are still here, it may not be too long before most of the people who can talk firsthand about the Velvet Underground shuffle off this mortal coil. The Velvets were bigger than life; for Haynes, it’s enough to ask us to remember them as they were.
The Velvet Underground opens in theaters and on Apple TV+ October 15.