The Velvet Underground Review: Lou Reed Was a Pop Singer All Along?

Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground is a treat for the eyes, and a tease for a deep dive into the songs.

The Velvet Underground
Photo: Apple

With The Velvet Underground, director Todd Haynes effectively evokes the Andy Warhol Factory’s experimental celluloid renderings, and captures both why Warhol was so taken by the band, and the reason the Velvet Underground were not made for factory settings.

Both Lou Reed and John Cage are renowned as antagonistic agitators, and the band had nothing but disdain for much of their contemporaries. They even had a spat with their west coast counterparts, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, who were also musically adventurous, and virulently anti-hippie. Because The Velvet Underground’s songs were about drugs and dregs, Zappa thought they were a group of heroin junkies looking for a banana to smoke. Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker thought the “healthy-looking” Californians should “get real.” Named after Michael Leigh’s 1963 book about the sexual subculture, The Velvet Underground – Reed, Cale, Tucker, and Sterling Morrison – were as real as the city streets and as psychedelic as a Dream Syndicate.

The Velvet Underground spends an hour in New York’s burgeoning and contradictory underground of the early 1960s. It earns its bona fides by including a smorgasbord of excerpts from experimental films. The documentary uses split screens, like Andy Warhol’s film Chelsea Girls, but also clips of his other movies, including his Velvet Underground camera tests. There is very little footage of the 1966 Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows, which is a shame because Warhol was noted for filming everything. Haynes includes every scrap available, along with still photos and talking heads, to make the documentary chronological and straightforward. Yet, he still captures the period’s experimental tone.

Haynes spends a lot of time on Andy Warhol. This is partially because his films are obviously an inspiration to him personally. And well they should be. Warhol’s film The Kiss extends time and expands inclusionary acceptance. Films like Bad and Trash put a gritty New York City edge to the campy cult classics of John Waters. We hear from Factory girl Amy Taubin that the Warhol clique only had time for women if they were beautiful, which is a disappointing, if not unexpected, revelation. Warhol sponsored The Velvet Underground, putting lights behind them and producing their first album by merely coming up with the banana cover. Warhol said that he liked the group because they sounded the way his movies looked.

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The most intriguing revelation of the documentary, musically, is hearing how the band settled in new places in sound. They found a home by tuning to the hum of the refrigerator at the Dream Syndicate space on 56 Ludlow Street. As opposed to the standard 440 pitch standard tuning, the 60-cycle hum, according to Cale, was “the drone of western civilization.” It affects the alpha rhythm of the brain frequency which then has a psychological effect on the listener. As evidenced in the drone of the viola of “Venus in Furs,” or the sustained chordal dissonance of “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” the harmonics create tones of their own. Modern Lovers founder Jonathan Richman says there were more noises coming from the stage than there were band members to account for. Cale called the collaboration “dream music.”

It was, apparently, more effective for Reed than putting his hand through a glass door to get out of a gig he didn’t want to play on the St. Lawrence River. Upon a suggestion by Warhol Factory superstar Paul Morrissey, Warhol added the hypnotic German actor and model Nico to the band’s mesmerizing sustains. Reed didn’t like it, and would ultimately fire Andy, but it fitted the outfit for celebrity.  

Reed was a rock and roller with a strong affinity for street corner doo wop groups like the Paragons and the Jesters. Educated on the melodies and chord structures of Tin Pan Alley composers, he started out as a low-rent house writer for the label, Pickwick Records. A major high point of the documentary is hearing some of these early records. Velvet Underground fans should be prepared before watching to delve deep into some of the early titles. It is worth it. The snippet of the novelty song “The Ostrich” with Reed’s band The Primitives, and songs like it, are only an appetizer. Reed’s first record, “Leave her for me,” even got played on the Murray the K radio show. The famed DJ was out sick that night and Paul Sherman spun the disc, but the airplay netted Reed his first royalty check, for $2.70. Reed points out how that was “in fact, more than I made with the Velvet Underground.”

Reed would probably roll his eyes at his biography. The documentary itself points out his legend of hating everything, except Bob Dylan, and probably Dion of the Belmonts. He even trashed the Beatles, repeatedly. Cale says Reed was “like a three-year-old who needed to make everybody feel as uncomfortable as he was.” The Velvet Underground performs some shallow therapy on the root causes. Reed’s father was distant, far too much so to play catch, the documentary explains. Dragging Reed from the streets of Brooklyn to suburban Long Island left the young musician rudderless. Reed’s sister, Merrill Reed Weiner, says the story about gay aversion electroshock therapy is untrue. But overall, Haynes appears to be saying Reed was very serious when he told early record producers he just wanted to “get rich and be a rockstar.” It makes Reed out to be inauthentic.

Cale gets the spotlight from the opening kinescope clip of his 1962 appearance on the CBS game show I’ve Got a Secret. Cale’s secret is that he made musical history by giving an 18-hour concert where he only played one song over and over. Cale comes across as the radical soul of The Velvet Underground to Reed’s rock and roll rebel without a cause. As a young music student in Wales, Cale wanted to play Paganini, but was caught up in the drone of the New York City underground. He’d improvised his way through the classics and needed more challenge. He finds the avant garde sounds of John Cage, whose compositions pushed critics to say “that’s not music anymore,” remembers Henry Flynt, who coined the term “concept art” in the early 1960s.

The documentary dives deep into the music of the first album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, but focuses on the drama behind White Light/White Heat, the band’s second album. It is more known for Reed’s speedy drug indulgences, like firing Warhol or replacing Cale with Doug Yule for the 1969 album The Velvet Underground.  The final album, Loaded, from 1970, is treated like a sellout bid for mainstream popularity.

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Haynes explains the music viscerally rather than charting it out. He interviews Maureen Tucker, a groundbreaking experimenter of rhythmic trance, about everything but her drumming. Her story about being forced to sing “After Hours” in the studio and suffering through requests is, however, the most fun story of the documentary.

Cale is interviewed at length for the film. He says he has never met Doug Yule, but he ultimately patched up his relationship with Reed, who died in 2013. Nico died after a cycling accident in 1988. The band’s guitarist Sterling Morrison died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1995. The documentary ends with a montage of The Velvet Underground’s post-band careers, including a photo of Patti Smith’s revolutionary first album Horses (1975), produced by Cale, but it should have been an extended segment.

The Velvet Underground is Haynes’ first documentary, but not his first foray into the world of music and musicians. Usually, he transposes the aural landscape into different keys. His 1998 feature Velvet Goldmine turned David Bowie’s career into an even more of a fantasy film than it already was. It took six actors to play Bob Dylan in Haynes’ 2007’s film I’m Not There. Karen Carpenter was played by a Barbie doll in his 2015 biopic Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.

With The Velvet Underground, Haynes is still putting his spin on the band, reinterpreting their history to suit his own personal impressions. He sidelines the ugliness, but The Velvet Underground is a pretty film about a dark band. It is for people who appreciate the art of music. The Velvet Underground were one of the most influential bands in rock history. Groups formed because of them. They weren’t played on the radio. Their shows were more interdisciplinary arts projects than rock concerts. Haynes tries to capture that, turning the film into performance art. For the most part, it works, mainly because it is apparent The Velvet Underground is, if not his favorite band, one that he admires, respects and emulates. Most of all, it is an invitation to hear more.

The Velvet Underground will be available in theaters and on Apple TV+ on Friday, Oct. 15.


4.5 out of 5