One of the most revealing scenes in Todd Haynes’s imaginative and entertaining documentary, “The Velvet Underground,” about the quintessential New York hipster band of the late ’60s, illustrates exactly what they were, and, perhaps more importantly, what they were not. Armed with a collection of off-putting songs about addiction, sadism, and sexual exploitation, and dressed totally in black, the Velvets are seen making their first trip to the West Coast where they were largely ignored and scorned in Los Angeles. Cut to a shot of the paisley-clad California-dreaming Mamas and Poppa’s crooning in perfect four-part harmony, “Monday, Monday.”
“We hated the hippies,” snaps Velvet’s drummer Maureen Tucker, one of the two surviving members of the group interviewed for the film. The Velvets clearly did not aspire to the inclusiveness and community that was the zeitgeist of the counter-culture. Theirs was a different impulse. Born out of the post-beat, avant-garde New York art scene where Andy Warhol was the reigning deity, the band merged the visuals of experimental films, the atonal whir of modern music, and the poetry of outsiders. If hippies were hot, the Velvets were cool.
It seems almost inevitable that Haynes would find his way to making this film. It’s his first full-length documentary, but he has been making unconventional music films for decades, from “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” (1988) to his take on glam rock and David Bowie in “Velvet Goldmine” (1998) to the fractured narrative of “I’m Not There” (2007) in which six actors played different versions of Bob Dylan. The cultural dissonance of the Velvet Underground era had personal meaning for Haynes as a gay man looking for his artistic footing in the ’70s. “This was music that singled you out, identified you, … that aroused creative desire,” he said.
But Haynes had no interest in making a traditional talking heads documentary. The film does not set out to explain the life and times of the Velvet Underground so much as it seeks to recreate the experience of being in New York in those turbulent years. He accomplishes this by using a non-stop stream of images, photographs, and experimental films. In one scene, poet Gerard Malanga and actress Mary Woronov dance with whips as The Velvet Underground plays with Warhol films and a dizzying light show behind them.
The drone of the Velvets music was not unlike the hypnotic effect of watching Warhol’s movies. Very loud, profane, and impossible to explain. The band was headed by scowling songwriter and guitarist Lou Reed, a middle-class kid from Long Island, who half-sang and half-spoke most of the numbers, and Welshman John Cale, a student of modern music, who contributed a searing electric viola. Sterling Morrison played guitar and bass, and Tucker was perched behind an almost toy-looking drum kit. The sound was a bizarre mix of Rhythm and Blues, top forty’s bubble gum and doo-wop, and the avant-gardism of the period. The songs featured a cast of characters often drawn from the misfits in the Warhol orbit.
Rather than taking a linear approach, the film is constructed with layer-upon layer of sensory overload, resembling the happenings Warhol staged all over town and dubbed the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The scene was well documented and the seemingly unlimited access Haynes and editors Alfonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz had to the Warhol Foundation archives help paint a picture of an amphetamine-fuelled era with the Velvets in the middle of a wildly swirling universe.
For the Velvet’s first album in 1966, Warhol created a yellow banana on the cover that could be unzipped and brought in the strikingly beautiful German model and actress Nico. No matter that she could barely stay on key, she was there for dramatic effect and with a foghorn voice croaked some of the Velvet’s greatest songs like “Femme Fatale,” about Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick and the prophetic “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”
In perhaps the band’s most notorious song, “Heroin,” Reed tried to capture a junkie’s experience shooting up. With momentum and tempo building, he sang: “When I’m rushing on my run/And feel just like Jesus’ son….” The Velvet’s songs could be incredibly cold and cruel, a fact not lost on Haynes. He never tries to sentimentalize or soften the reality.
But other songs mixed some candy with the poison and there were calmer moments of exquisite suffering, like Reed’s “Pale Blue Eyes”: “If I could make the world as pure/And strange as what I see/ I’d put you in the mirror/I put in front of me.”
The Velvet Underground lasted until 1970 when Reed characteristically left his own group. The albums didn’t sell much, but as the musician, Brian Eno joked, everyone who bought one ran out and started a band. The Velvet’s sonic distortion and gender- and genre-bending music went on to influence groups too numerous to mention, including The Sex Pistols, Joy Division, Talking Heads, and U2.
And the Velvets also influenced artists like Haynes, who was buoyed by their embrace of gay and alternate lifestyles. They paved the way for mainstream artists to be unwholesome and maladjusted. The film is Haynes’ personal tribute to The Velvet Underground’s glorious transgressions.