Fresh off its successful screenings at the New York Film Festival, the first ever documentary from cinematic provocateur Todd Haynes is about to hit theaters and streaming this weekend.
The director of “Velvet Goldmine” and “Carol” takes us on a deep dive into the history of one of rock and roll’s greatest art rock bands, The Velvet Underground.
If you’re hoping for a straightforward approach, you won’t get it here. Haynes returns to the more experimental techniques of his earliest work and features lots of split screens and rare archival footage presented in a collage method that would make Peter Greenaway proud.
There are beautiful close-up establishing shots of each band member (Lou Reed, John Cale, Moe Tucker, and Sterling Morrison) that linger, capturing the intimate nature of Andy Warhol’s factory of artists and those we would now refer to as influencers.
Cale and Tucker are the only two surviving members of the band. They are featured prominently in newly shot interview footage alongside recorded audio from Reed and Morrison. It’s hard not to wish this project had been completed while they were all still alive, but the trajectory of the band was so well documented that Haynes is able to cover all the bases and then some. He doesn’t shy away from stories that Reed’s parents sent him to get electroshock therapy or how the band handled the turmoil after Warhol thrust German singer Nico into the band’s orbit to boost their profile (and how both were in love with Reed).
We learn from childhood friends and early bandmates that Lou Reed always wanted to be a rock star. He had some early success with songs that were recorded for compilations on the Pickwick budget label, but it wasn’t until college when Reed and Cale recruited Morrison for a band that the seeds of what would become the Velvets would be born.
Maureen “Moe” Tucker did not join as the band’s drummer until after their first demo tape had been recorded, but once she came on board things solidified and they earned their first residency in New York.
Haynes leans on, but doesn’t go wall-to-wall with, talking head interviews to broaden the scope of the story. One of the most interesting and unexpected of those profiled is musician Jonathan Richman, who later formed The Modern Lovers. He talks about how he saw the band play over 50 times when they would come to Boston and that Morrison helped inspired him and mentored him as a guitarist.
As a band who never achieved great chart success but whose cult status has only grown over the decades, this documentary serves as a fitting non-traditional tribute.
Consistently engaging, visually exciting, and packed with footage that should delight diehard fans, “The Velvet Underground” is an essential look at the rise and fall of one of rock and roll’s most iconic bands.
“The Velvet Underground” opens in select theaters across the country this weekend while simultaneously streaming on Apple TV+ on Friday. No matter how you watch it, make sure it’s loud.