The Velvet Underground proves an interesting resting place for a litany of period detritus, but stumbles when foregrounding its titular subjects.
Todd Haynes, a noted semiotician, tends to reconstruct rather than document, reincorporating tokens of his beloved ’60s and beyond into parallel narratives, as in his fractured Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There (in which the musician’s name is never actually spoken), and the David Bowie-adjacent glam fantasy Velvet Goldmine. Whereas a side-trip into documentary would be a pedestrian decision for innumerable other directors, it’s a surprising one for Haynes, given his fearless worldbuilding in films past. I’m Not There and Velvet Goldmine both retained enough familiarity subsumed within the unique designs of their creator that the cultural significance of the respective, seismic musical moments was never far beyond the edges.
Haynes’ new film, The Velvet Underground, which covers the rise of the wildly influential rock band, sacrifices the director’s appetite for free flowing histories, instead housing idiosyncrasies within the conventions of a standard documentary structure. The sheer wealth of visual and aural information plays as something of a course-correction for a group whose iconography is as shallowly oversaturated as Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. Haynes’ montage splits the onscreen difference — often literally — between contemporaneous interviews and archival footage, hinting at the backlog of formalities that must be dispensed with: the crosscontinetal roots of the band (which features a brief foray into Welsh mining, courtesy of John Cale, and Long Island nuclear family life, as per Lou Reed’s sister), the state of avant-garde music at the time, and most intriguingly, the artistic hodgepodge of early ’60s New York City. The roots of The Velvet Underground are impossible without such venerated and varied figures as Jonas Mekas, Andy Warhol, La Monte Young, and more. It’s at this interval where Haynes’ flurry of imagery and sound is most suited to its subject, the excitement of the period palpably conveyed via the quickfire editing.
Still, The Velvet Underground is a documentary, one being released by Apple, at that. Haynes’ experimentation can only go so far, and the film occasionally settles into rote talking-head territory. It’s touching to hear Jonathan Richman’s reminiscences of hearing the band at an impressionable age, and Amy Taubin rightfully lays out the misogyny that drove much of The Factory. But soon points are reiterated and rephrased, and all the secondhand “there’d been nothing like it before!” exclamations grow grating. At its best, The Velvet Underground is a resting place for the detritus of its subject’s time. Somehow, the more the band itself is centered, the more disappointing the film is.
You can stream Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground on Apple TV+ beginning on October 15.
Originally published as part of NYFF 2021 — Dispatch 3.