REVIEW: The Velvet Underground [2021]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 121 minutes
    Release Date: October 15th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Apple TV+
    Director(s): Todd Haynes
    Writer(s): Todd Haynes

It was all about extended time.

Director Todd Haynes has culled through contextually relevant and era-specific footage, artistic contemporaries, interviews both archival and new, and more (the end credits are over five minutes long to fit the myriad sources) to create a definitive oral history of one of the most influential rock/pop bands of all-time, simply (and aptly) titled The Velvet Underground. He needs to go through these hours of information because, as we soon learn through the journey, that name was bigger than just a band. Its originators Lou Reed and John Cale were the driving force of its sound, but their involvement with Andy Warhol turned the act into a multimedia extravaganza merging music, film, performance, etc. on a single stage to hypnotize their audience into an enlightened trance of pure experience.

How do you portray that ephemeral act on-screen without merely playing a live recording of a show? You can imagine Haynes asked himself that very question before pursuing the project because he decides to utilize split-screen, off-centered framing, and visual/aural collage to enhance the main thread being shared at any given time. He lets Warhol’s long-take moving portraits of Reed and Cale takeover half of our vision while the other side is populated by a smattering of imagery setting the stage of time, place, atmosphere, and culture. He then leaves Long Island and Wales (their respective origin points) to let them collide with the ever-growing and exciting scene in New York City amongst the likes of Tony Conrad, Jonas Mekas, Amy Taubin, and others. Their art eventually overlaps.

I call it an oral history because Haynes removes himself from the process altogether beyond his role as curator. We see and hear no prompts as the voices of Reed, Cale, and their bandmates Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker relay their story as they remember it from their unique vantages. Sometimes Haynes cuts them together if the moment is shared by more than one and other times chooses the best narrator for that piece to comment on what occurred. Wives, girlfriends, peers, and fans (Modern Lovers founder Jonathan Richman often brings the best energy of the group as a legitimate groupie who saw them as Gods and their music as a doorway with which to understand life itself) arrive for added clarity until the full picture finds focus.

Anecdotes like Cale recalling his and Reed’s peacocking the first time they met ending when he pulled out his viola to play something as the guitarist lamented that he’d been one-upped are great. Some had me laughing out loud from the sheer audacity of the players involved and chaos that ensued too (La Monte Young, Jackson Browne, and David Bowie are heard while even more are shown). And alongside those conversational bits come history lessons as Haynes lets Young and Cale describe avant-garde drone while showing Conrad’s flicker or Warhol’s many silent kisses—a dense syllabus demanding our undivided attention as we walk through 1960s New York City with the soundtrack of those who lived it plays in the background to set the perfect edifyingly sensory mood.

It’s a lot to process and yet, at just two-hours, not everything you’d like to know is present. Haynes would need a full eight-episode miniseries to delve that deep and then you lose a bit of the mercurial nature of what went on behind the scenes. Add the fact that so many of the players have passed on (Reed, Morrison, Warhol, Nico, Mekas, Conrad) and less becomes more since not everyone is present to defend themselves. Not that they would need to defend anything. Cale and Tucker are hardly vindictive as both remained friends with Reed after things imploded, so emotion is often pushed aside for pragmatism. Was Cale angry when he was booted? Sure. But he describes the moment’s inevitability with welcome clarity and hindsight.

The same goes for the whole. Every talking head lets his/her individual personality shine through, but none (unless Haynes edited it out) makes things personal. They’re reminiscing with fondness about a period of time that defined their lives as well as the many artforms they utilized. Their words are ultimately accompaniment to the visuals with Haynes forcing us to absorb as much information as possible until we start seeing 60s-era sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll in our sleep. It’s a measured assault, though—meticulously crafted and engineered for optimal consumption with speed and rhythm matching that of the music. That it culminates with an elegant collage of post-break-up album covers and reunion photos proves icing on the cake to reveal that not even ego could destroy their collaboration’s magic.

[1] Moe Tucker, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Lou Reed from archival photography from “The Velvet Underground,” premiering globally on Apple TV+ on October 15, 2021.
[2] Archival split-screen frames from “The Velvet Underground,” premiering globally on Apple TV+ on October 15, 2021.
[3] Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and Moe Tucker from archival photography in a split-screen frame from “The Velvet Underground,” premiering globally on Apple TV+ on October 15, 2021.

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