“Being afraid of what’s about to happen is not a problem.”
The Velvet Underground goes out of its way, from its first moment, to let you know that this isn’t your typical music documentary. The first documentary feature from acclaimed director Todd Haynes (Carol, I’m Not There) starts with the quote from Baudelaire, then moves into a deluge of '50s and '60s media touchstones, overlaid with disorienting music and jump cuts.
The documentary — now playing at the Harris Theater — takes the shape of its revolutionary and inimitably unique subject, the art and the passionate pursuit of it being the singular focus. Like Haynes' stop-motion, Barbie-starring short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, his latest dip into music is proudly experimental, less concerned with what people expect and more concerned with what it leaves behind. Like the band, the film is difficult, creative, rewarding, and at times far too obsessed with itself and the notion that every one of its ideas should definitely make the final cut. It’s beautifully flawed, far too long, and deeply rewarding.
The Velvet Underground tells a fairly linear story but muddies the waters along the way. Haynes doesn’t have much interest in traditional camera set-ups; instead, he’d rather the interviews be told in voiceover, with split-screen shots of bandmates John Cale and Lou Reed’s childhood, juxtaposed with archival footage of them staring straight into the camera for minutes on end.
The archival footage was shot by Andy Warhol, the Pittsburgh-born icon who was one of the Velvet Underground’s biggest champions and collaborators. Warhol is heavily featured in the film, both as another documentarian of sorts and as an omnipresent force that the band used as creative fuel. He's also not portrayed as a wholly positive figure, as his creative hub The Factory comes off as an incubator for brilliant artists as well as a studio where women were objectified.
In fact, most of the film's subjects aren’t easy ones to neatly summarize. Reed, the band’s frontman and most influential figure, is at the heart of this. Shown growing up in a family of tough love and (seemingly) shock therapy to “cure” him being gay, he certainly suffered, but was also notoriously difficult (difficult being a kind way of putting it). In maybe the film's most standard “rock-doc” trope, the band experiences great success but ends up dissolving due to the conflict that Reed’s personality caused.
However, despite their relatively short peak, The Velvet Underground’s highs were nearly unmatched in modern rock-and-roll. As the cliché quote attributed to Brian Eno goes, “The Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one went out and started a band,” and the film shows there’s some truth to that. From contemporaries like Allen Ginsberg and La Monte Young to descendants like Jonathan Richman and John Waters, Haynes shows the band's massive impact. The film is as interested in securing their place within the 1960s New York art scene as it is in their music specifically, and highlights a generation of artists that fully and passionately believed in their art as a spiritual experience.
This can come off as pretentious, and it often is. Everyone from Reed to Cale to Warhol, to Haynes himself, is a little too obsessed with proving that their art is much more important than anything else out there. But those moments, whether it be Cale’s hum of a one-note guitar and Reed’s one-of-a-kind voice opening “Heroin,” or Haynes using that same hum to score a psychedelic montage, make you really start to believe maybe it is that important. The band and film both illustrate the undeniable power of pushing boundaries, regardless of the outcome. The Velvet Underground is showing at the Harris Theater through Wed., Nov. 3. 803 Liberty Ave., Downtown. trustarts.org. Also available to stream now on Apple TV+.