Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground

Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground (2021)

When Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine opened in 1998 after winning an award for best artistic contribution in Cannes, the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman called it “the most cerebral rock ’n’ roll movie ever made.” Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays a British glam rocker, the spitting image of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust (with a hint of Marc Bolan), who falls for an American proto-punker, an amalgam of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. Nine years later, Haynes took a deep dive into Dylanology with I’m Not There, casting six actors to portray various facets of Bob Dylan’s shifting personas. “Just as that kaleidoscopic movie exploded stable notions of the biographical film, so does The Velvet Underground put standard, tribute-style music documentary to shame by plunging headlong into the cultural fusion that fueled the band,” writes Nicolas Rapold in his review of Haynes’s first documentary for Sight & Sound.

On his podcast The Last Thing I Saw, Rapold talks with critic, filmmaker, and curator Amy Taubin, who appears in The Velvet Underground not only as an interviewee but also as the subject of one of Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests. In the 1960s, Taubin was an actor and a close friend of filmmaker and multimedia artist Barbara Rubin, who worked with Warhol on the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a series of events featuring performances from the Velvets and Factory regulars. Taubin tells Rapold that she has seen and been in a good number of documentaries about Warhol and the underground film scene in New York, but Haynes’s is a cut above. “I’ve never seen one as good as this. I’ve never seen one as serious as this.”

Haynes tells Deadline’s Damon Wise that “the amazing, remarkable thing about The Velvet Underground is that they came into being at the time when Andy Warhol was giving up visual arts for filmmaking.” Dedicating his film to Jonas Mekas, Haynes uses split screens to juxtapose the chronologies of the lives of Welsh multi-instrumentalist John Cale, singer and lyricist Lou Reed, guitarist Sterling Morrison, and drummer Moe Tucker with clips from films by Warhol, Mekas, Rubin, Jack Smith, Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren, Marie Menken, and Shirley Clarke. “I wanted to use the visual language of these films as a foreground/background template for talking about this music, and how the band came into being, because it was all around them,” says Haynes. “The visual language of film, of art, and of that time was something that you wouldn’t ever want to have to recreate. You wouldn’t ever want to have to turn it into a fiction.”

IndieWire’s David Ehrlich notes that Warhol once said that “he liked the Velvets because they sounded the way his movies looked, and now Haynes has made a documentary that looks the way the Velvets sounded.” Editors Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz “create an associative mosaic of images so loud that you can practically hear the synapses firing as your brain connects the slow cinema of Andy Warhol to the sustained tones of La Monte Young.” In the Telegraph, Robbie Collin observes that “the kind of Wikipedian roughage that would be central to a more conventional film tends to be either swished past or skipped entirely.”

As the only surviving members of the Velvets, Cale and Tucker are interviewed, while Reed and Morrison are represented by archival footage and audio. David Ehrlich finds “something omnivorous about [Cale’s] creative energy, and he naturally tessellates with any two subjects that Haynes wants to bring together. Nothing feels like a detour.” But Variety’s Owen Gleiberman seems to resent what he perceives as an emphasis in the film on Cale at the expense of Reed, writing that “it’s as if Haynes wanted the Velvets to be an art band even more than he wanted them to be a rock ‘n’ roll band.” In the end, though, Gleiberman concedes that as “a collage of the period, The Velvet Underground is dazzling: a hypnotic act of high-wire montage.”

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