So far 2021 is turning out to be quite the year for documentaries unearthing long-buried or unknown musical treasures of the ’60s. The current Summer of Soul highlights a series of Harlem-based concerts with iconic Black artists, a kind of African American Woodstock stuck in someone’s basement for half a century and now getting a much-acclaimed film directed by Questlove made from those tapes. Edgar Wright’s fascinating The Sparks Brothers, the story of the quirky band Sparks featuring brothers Russell and Ron Mael, gives this cult musical act a long-deserved place in the sun. And now, just premiered out of competition today at the Cannes Film Festival, comes director Todd Haynes’ feature documentary debut on the avant garde rock/punk band The Velvet Underground in a movie of the same name that shows why this ’60s creation from the world of Andy Warhol has made such an impact decades long after their inception and heyday.
Haynes, an exceptionally talented filmmaker of such movies as Poison, Safe, Far from Heaven, Carol, Dark Waters and more, discovered Velvet Underground the minute he hit college, and they have stuck with him ever since, finally leading to his desire to jump into the world of archival documentaries and bring their unique story to light. Haynes has dabbled in music before in films starting with his quirky short, Superstar, featuring puppets to tell the tale of Karen Carpenter; 1998’s fictional glam-rock pic Velvet Goldmine; and 2007’s collection of Bob Dylan snapshots called I’m Not There. Although he clearly could have chosen to do Velvet Underground as a narrative film, he wisely went the nonfiction route and gathered together a series of interviews with those who were there at the time — and only those who were there — to tell the story of an iconic band appreciated much more in the years way past their prime years by a slew of devoted fans who became immersed in their music and what they represent.
Key to all of this is fascinating insights from the two surviving original members, John Cale and Maureen “Moe” Tucker, the latter being the female drummer who joined the group just a year after its inception and became a crucial force in its success. Of course perhaps the guiding force was legendary Lou Reed, who wrote so many of their songs, and was, as presented here, the difficult, moody, unpredictable and all-around genius behind their avant garde/rock/punk — whatever you want to label it — sound. Haynes takes us right back to his, Cale’s and the band’s roots in effective fashion, interspersing some never-seen footage and tracks with generous looks at the world from which they emerged. That world, of course, was also Warhol’s, the eponymous experimental filmmaker who became the “manager” of Velvet Underground, using them at the “Factory”; putting them into his multimedia show, “Exploding Plastic Inevitable”; getting them a record deal; and inspiring their first album with German model/singer Nico, also a key figure here, along with the other now-deceased original member, Sterling Morrison.
It all makes for a richly entertaining and fascinating look at this important musical creation that came from the unlikeliest of breeding grounds and inspired their fans to be rebellious in ways unthought-of then but which also created a sound that was steps ahead of punk — a jazz-influenced rock variation that resonates today and, thanks to this film, no doubt will find a much wider audience than they ever had when they were creating this music. And of course the soundtrack here is pure gold, weaving in the likes of early Reed/Velvet Underground songs like “Heroin,” “Venus in Furs,” “Black Angels Death Song,” “There She Goes Again,” “I’m Waiting For The Man” and much more. Haynes has made sure his cinematic tribute to this influential group is authentic to the core.
The journey is all here, and I especially loved their sojourn to the West Coast and, as Moe Tucker hilariously puts it, their disdain for the hippie and flower power movement that garnered far more attention than the “underground” world from which they emerged. In retrospect, it is ironic to see who and what have stood the test of time — especially that time. Haynes’ impressively mounted first docu feature answers that question, as perhaps does the key mantra of Velvet Underground described by Cale: “How to be elegant and how to be brutal.”
Producers are Christine Vachon, Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements, Carolyn Hepburn, David Blackman, and Haynes. The Apple Original Films production debuts in October on Apple TV+.