Todd Haynes’ documentary film “The Velvet Underground”, which was released on Apple+ two months ago, takes an idiosyncratic approach to its main subject, and the result is quite interesting to watch. Although I must confess that I only know a few songs by Lou Leed and his famous band, I observed Haynes’ visual collage of archival footage and interviews with growing fascination, and I was alternatively entertained and enlightened by what is so compellingly presented on the screen during its 2-hour running time.
At the beginning, we get to know a bit about the early life of Leed via Leed’s archival interview recording and several people who were close to him. During his childhood years, he was a rather moody kid who was unhappy with his suburban environment while also quite distant to his parents, and that was probably the reason why he came to pursue his passion toward music more after he grew up to be a teenager. Even before he entered his adulthood, he was already an active musician with several his own songs in his pocket, and, not so surprisingly, he eventually left for New York City for searching for something different in the early 1960s.
Several interviewees in the documentary point out how Leed and his music were unfortunately ahead of their time, but New York City in the early 1960s was actually a right place and time for nurturing his musical talent. As the American society was swept with lots of social/cultural changes during the 1960s, New York City attracted lots of various artists not afraid of doing something new and different, and many of them were associated with Andy Warhol, who can be regarded as one of the leading figures of that revolutionary cultural movement. Under Warhol’s fame and support, those numerous artists often gathered together while constantly trying for more artistic creativity and innovation, and that is how Leed came across John Cale, a Welsh musician who had also been reaching for something different just like Leed.
Cale and Leed clicked together well from the beginning because Cale was also a child who grew up under unhappy parents and then got interested in music later. After coming to New York City, Cale was impressed a lot by many avant-garde musicians in the city including John Cage and La Monte Young, and he came to pursue more of experimental music just like Cage and Young. Now those avant-garde music performances from that time may look merely amusing to you, but they did reach for new kinds of musical expression seriously, and the documentary did a splendid job on conveying the excitement of their artistic activities to us via its kaleidoscopic collage of various archival footage clips from that time.
After Leed and Cale formed the Velvet Underground along with Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker, they became a minor sensation in the city even though they did not draw much attention outside New York City probably because of their experimental style and content. After all, not many people wanted to hear their songs including the one which is literally about using heroine, and filmmaker John Waters gladly tells us how much unpopular the band was when it later did a tour concert around the country.
The band kept going on as slowly gaining more popularity mainly thanks to the rising anti-establishment sentiment among young people, but the harmony among Leed, Cale, and the other two band members turned out to be pretty short. Around the time when they released their second album, the conflicts among them were already growing to considerable level, and we get an apt visual presentation on how their different styles clashed with each other instead of generating any harmony in case of their second album.
In the end, Leed and Cale had a breakup to Morrison and Tucker’s dismay, and Leed filled the resulting empty spot with a young musician named Doug Yuel. Although things seemed to be going well for a while, the Velvet Underground became more, uh, conventional around that point, and both Morrison and Tucker were already quite disillusioned as losing all the fun from that experimental period they shared with Cale and Leed. Finally, Morrison decided to quit the band, and that was the end of the Velvet Underground.
Freely flowing from one point to another, the documentary vividly examines and illuminates how the Velvet Underground was shaped and developed during that interesting period, and Haynes and his crew members including cinematographer Edward Lachman, who was previously Oscar-nominated for Haynes’ great lesbian romance film “Carol” (2015), and editors Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz deftly keep us engaged from the beginning to the end. Often juxtaposing old archival footage with its new interview clips, the documentary generates the emotional resonance between past and present, and we come to feel and learn more of how the Velvet Underground is one of the enduring cultural legacies from the 1960s while still influencing many musicians out there even at present.
In conclusion, “The Velvet Underground” is another superlative piece of work from Haynes, who has seldom disappointed me since he drew my attention for the first time with “Far from Heaven” (2002). Like his unorthodox Bob Dylan biopic “I’m Not There” (2007), the documentary initially requires some patience from you especially if you do not have much background knowledge, but this is a rich and rewarding experience on the whole, and I am willing to examine it again for more appreciation someday.