The Velvet Evolution: Review of the 2021 Todd Haynes Velvet Underground Documentary

Todd Haynes is not a joker. He took the task of creating the perhaps definitive Velvet Underground documentary very seriously. “The Velvet Underground”, is a sparsely titled, restrained, bleak, avant guarde mirror reflecting the velvet evolution: the conception, birth, life and death of the most important band that ever was. It is 180 minutes of exploration into the bones of what is art, who are the artists and how do they create; into the emptiness of the drone and the power of noise. It looks at how artists are created, how society makes outcasts and the crucible of their destruction sometimes forms something transformed and transforming. Todd Haynes takes the Velvet Underground as seriously as the Baudelaire quote he opens with: “Music fathoms the sky.” This is his remit, his mission statement, his intent. Lou Reed and his Velvet Underground sought to ‘fathom the sky’, to make sense of the divine, that secret chord that pleased the Lord….even if the Velvets didn’t ‘care much for music…did they…’ to paraphrase Leonard Cohen.

The drone, the noise, the disconcerting lyrics, the exploration, the experimentation – sexual, musical, frequencies, in theme and language. “And the songs with the dirty words…record them that way” Reed and Cale report Andy as saying, in the song Work, from the 1990 abum, Songs for Drella. The Velvets both left the dirt in, and removed the superfluous. They stripped down, and embellished. The Velvets played God with sound. How is a documentarist meant to handle a band that pushed the boundaries so far, so often, and remained stubbornly non commercial, whilst influencing any band who was anything at all, for the next 50 years?

For Haynes, the answer to that question appears to be, ‘very carefully indeed’. Part of what makes this examination of the evolution of the Velvets so charming, and so important, is that Haynes uses the Velvets not just as subject matter, but also as inspiration. This is not merely an examination of the Velvets legacy, but also his own addition to the list of artists who find in The Velvet Underground, a fountain of inspiration to create their own artistic masterpieces – to pay the ferryman his penny, ‘between thought and expression’, as Lou sang in Some Kinda Love, ‘lies a lifetime’. It is the life times of the players in the Velvet passion play that provide fertile ground for Hayne’s beautifully curated, acid wax light show infused cinematic palette of drabs, mutes, ultra blacks and white heat white light, with hints of acid neon flashes.

Within his toolbox of tricks and his keen eye for engaging the audience in an intimate experience, are an ability to make full use of a split screen technique, collage, and split second flashes of debauchery hewn from the movies of Warhol, and contemporary footage. Anyone can stitch together these images, not hardly anyone could make sense of it in a couple of hours of sustained drone like hypnotic immersion into the Velvet paradigm. Hanyes, quite simply, for the duration of the documentary became a member of the band, the seventh lost soul in the temple of avant guarde, a valuable addition to their lexicon of creation and loss, breaking rules, laws and boundaries in order to free the art and the artists that create it. Haynes, in short is carrying the Underground flame for a couple of hours of virtuoso film making excellence: Andy Warhol would have been proud of him, or at least not bored, which for Andy, I suspect was just about the same thing.

Haynes takes us for a trip, from the creation of the pieces, asking the awkward questions of how a Reed and a Cale are created, sustained and thrown together, to the end of the road, the afterlife of a band. I am an obsessive as far as the Velvets and Lou Reed are concerned, and for me to be surprised, challenged, entertained and dumbfounded by a Velvet documentary, just proves that Haynes found new ground to break. Hearing Reed’s psychotherapist sister defend Lou Reed being subjected to electroshock therapy by his parents in their sick attempt to cure Lou from ‘wanting to play football for the coach’ as Lou charmingly describes his homosexuality/bisexuality in Coney Island Baby, had me pausing the documentary, getting up, walking around the room sickened, before wanting to reach into the screen, confronted as Haynes forces us to be with close ups of Lou’s face, his blinking gentle eyes, and ask ourselves, ‘was it worth it?’

How we create our artists, how they free themselves by means of their art, how they are tortured and then condemned for their reactions is a brutal business. Andy filming Lou Reed, young and looking wasted and vulnerable, eating a Hershey’s bar, whilst ostensibly a waste of tape to the more unimaginative amongst us, humanizes the young man that wrote the lines, ‘when I put a spike into my vein, I tell you things aren’t quite the same/ when I’m rushing on my run/ I feel just like Jesus’s son/ and I guess that I just don’t know…’ Lou told us ‘they gonna kill your sons’. Allowing Lou Reed’s sister to refuse to allow her parents to be criticized, to defend the brutality towards Lou, and his natural leanings, threw new light onto Lou’s work. All of a sudden, the words of Kill Your Sons, came alive and cut through the bullshit. Haynes’ ability to allow the protagonists to illuminate themselves, allowed the art to be thrown into sharp relief. We are invited to witness the creation of Lou Reed, and the bastards aren’t even sorry, man, they aren’t even sorry. There are we all clapping like dofus’s, applauding like assholes, cheering on Lou, and mostly not for his survival and thriving, but for his rebellion. For that which he became that interested, challenged and, yes, shocked.

All your two-bit psychiatrists
Are giving you electroshock 
They said they'd let you live at home with mom and dad 
Instead of mental hospitals 
But every time you tried to read a book 
You couldn't get to page 17 
Cause you forgot where you were 
So you couldn't even read
Don't you know they're gonna kill your sons 
Don't you know they're gonna kill, kill your sons 
They're gonna kill, kill your sons 
Until they run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run away
(Lou Reed, 'Kill Your Sons')

When Lou sets his chin against the Australian reporters in the iconic 1974 interview, and treats them with utter distaste, when he is on the stage, a methamphetamine Rock and Roll Animal neon butterfly with bleach blonde hair and a wiggle of his leather encased ass, when he descends into the hell of what Lester Bangs described as ‘death dwarf’, producing the sickening Berlin, and the aural attack monster of Metal Machine Music, how can we look at it the same after watching Hayne’s documentary? Art and entertainment? Suffering and damage. I wish I had known it was gonna be my last shot of Lou Reed without truly understanding that pain he was in, before I shed my innocence in favor of a sad understanding, however beautiful that understanding may be packaged. Haynes did his job: he illuminated the art, it’s origins and the breadth of its scope and influence. Sometimes knowledge is not power, or beauty, sometimes knowledge is sadness. Sometimes knowledge is bad, mad and dangerous to know. It is not a criticism, far from it. The Velvets is clearly sacred territory for Haynes. He took a risk with his art house treatment of the material, and with exercising his own creativity within a factual medium. To not take risks would not be worthy of an honorary Velvet, an avant guardist, and an artist. To not take risks would be to make just another music documentary: the risk paid off. This is so much more than a documentary. The Velvet Underground, by Todd Haynes is a work of art in its own right.

Cale is given similar treatment by Haynes, the isolation of his Welsh valley upbringing, the distancing and loss of his mother, the abuse he suffered without ability to stop it or name it at the time, his musical initiation, tying his rejection into that of his band mate. They were two lost souls, two damaged souls coming at the problem of modern art and sound from two sides of a body of water. The Yin and yang of the Velvets, the iron hand in that velvet glove. The wild and the disciplined. Two magnets which eventually repelled each other: no blame is placed. Haynes makes it clear that these two genius souls could not exist forever in the same physical space and time. It was good while it lasted, and Haynes does not stint on giving the audience a full exploration of the height of the Velvet’s powers.

The soundtrack, black screens allowing for the noise to close in of the feedback and the all important ingredient ‘x’ – the drone, that long sustained note, the frequency of modern life – Cale describes how they tuned to the frequency of the refrigerator, a cycle that mirrors the natural cycle of human frequencies of sleep. This obsession with frequencies haunted Reed throughout his career, birthing both the brutal Metal Machine Music, and the Perfect Day fragile beauty of acceptance and empathy.

Lou and Cale, the androdynous Mo Tucker, and the enigmatic Sterling Morrison: strained, alienated lives, tuned into the extraordinary, straining to escape holes society dug for them, that the establishment created, that needles make in inner elbow ditches, that Valleys make in the Welsh countryside, that 1950s austere homophobia make in son’s psyches, that abuse creates, that Rimbaud made for poets to fall into, that factories dig mechanically, and Andy Warhol draws ladders to escape from. Holes that drugs create to examine, to sleep or exist within, to fall into and climb out from. This is a movie about holes: those light show polka dots that covered the band throwing illumination upon them. Holes in the stories. Holes in the history for Haynes to try and fill or insinuate for the audience to examine for themselves in their own sweet time. Hanyes creates a keyhole through montage, split screens, carefully chosen images, perfectly married with the music and sounds of a band of outcasts and rejects trying to shine a light towards a future for music, that was something more than ‘baby, baby, baby’ doo wop, three chords and a strutting rhythic riff.

Perhaps one of the illuminating stories Haynes drew out of Cale involves the wife of a famous New York conductor, Serge Koussevitzky, Olga. Mrs Koussevitzky was a great patron of music and the arts. Cale’s early composition which involved destroying a piano from the inside out with an axe, performed in front of her, presented as a work of art, horrified the poor woman to the point that she ran out, seemingly distraught and horrified. Cale jokes that she was fine, she recovered and went out for cocktails with them later. Cale taking an axe to the establishment, iconoclastic and unrepentant, cheeky smile intact, if not the piano, proud of his destructo noise making, enshrines Cale’s legacy as the perfect slash and smash foil to Reed’s fight back against that which was. After the Velvets nothing was the same again, and thank the twin gods of broken glass and viola feedback for that!

It would be easy enough for someone who clearly loves the subject matter as much as Haynes does, to shy away from the more unsympathetic aspects of the characters within the band, thankfully, Haynes is more devoted to his art than to the artists he admires. To not be transparent and brutally honest would not be doing the Velvets any favors, anyhow. Shock and criticism, or building Reed’s legend as the biggest baddest junkie out there, depends on which side of the fence the watcher is sitting on. For me, hearing his took his sweet girlfriend to a gay dance bar, tried to get her to dance with a girl, and then took her along with him to score smack, while she recounts the events with a sneer of disgust on her face, sealed Lou’s place as High Priest of Pharmakaia, very bit as important as Burroughs, Hunter S Thompson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, or the ethanol giant that is Hemmingway. Lou Reed, as I suspected, had more than a bit of street cred. Unlike his peers who try and downplay their drug use (a Keef who never mainlined, a Patti Smith that only ever did hash whilst writing Poppies, a druggie Dylan who tried to pretend he never did any kinda habit). “Sullen, antagonistic, rebellious” an old college friend describes Lou as, and to be frank, can we blame him? Cale is not absolved from blame in the break up of the band, with a similar verdict being passed down on him too: the two of them were just too much alike.

Cale’s drone is given the proper weight and examination. The drone is life, and the continuation of life – it seems to go on forever, but there is a space, a hole left when the drone ends, a space that cannot be filled, except by more drone, more life: a kiss that goes on for an infinity. A heart beat that continues unrelenting. Civilization which smashes down those that either fall foul to rules, norms, conventions or predators. The only reasonable response is a feral uncivilized yowlp of rebellion.

The documentary is properly through, as can be expected for it’s extended two hour running time, not leaving out the Pickwick Records debacle, where a Lou having been employed to write cheap throwaway pop songs for the label, tries to sell them on Heroin, and ends up fleeing to the welcoming arms of Cale, not skipping over the Factory superstars that populate Reed’s lyrics. Not a stone is left unturned by Haynes. The running time is somewhat grueling for the non enthusiast, but anything less would not satisfy the legions of Velvets freaks who would sit there shaking their sullen, rebellious and antagonistic heads at the lack of completism.

The Proto Velvet band, The Primitives, is explored in depth, though no mention is made of Bridget Polk, the infamous benefactor and muse of the Factory scene, with her needles and her methamphetamine. This is the only glaring hole, that I would like to have seen filled in the storyline, that and perhaps Lou’s early Dylan admiration that can be heard in some of the early demos. I suppose cuts have to be made somewhere. I was also a little disappointed to see Haynes had gone for documenting the identity of the people speaking in interview the first time they are introduced, but then failing to label their voices after that. There were a couple of occasions that i would have liked to have known who was speaking at a particular time – it mattered who was saying what. Of course as someone merely watching the story, I could not recognize the voice, and the thread was therefore somewhat lost. These are minor quibbles. I can see why Hayes went for a more minimalistic approach, not cluttering the screen with typeface, he drew the line in favor of looks over information, and it is indeed a visually gorgeous piece of cinematography.

It was an absolute pleasure to listen to Mo’s heartbeat drums overlaid with such sympatico imagery, to observe those detuned ostrich guitars being highlighted by a now elderly and elegant woman doing the ostrich dance.

The Velvet Underground documentary is an art event in itself, inspiring, illuminating, tripping the switch, using darkness, light, noise and silence. The smooth lines of Andy’s videography, the sweat soaked images of sex long since passed by people not even identified, yet still defying a society which did not accept Lou’s manifesto of Some Kinda of Love, are delicate cut and pasted into a montage of rebellion and acceptance. This is a collection of vignettes, players and games. Intimate, inviting, engaging and immersive. Eyes blink, mouths move, the past is dissected, but held together by the sinew of creativity.

What is art? Is it as an outsider, eternally looking from the outside, into society, and thus able to see it all for what it really is? Is it important that Andy Warhol’s place as the first true multimedia artist is asserted and enshrined? Haynes would argue yes, and so would I. These are important questions with important answers. Even asking these questions is danger, especially now in a world that has become increasingly adverse to dissent. All of a sudden being The Artist who dares say no, who dares to protest, who dares to create that which is not fashionable in a way that is challenging, is something not only commercially non viable, but a form of social (media) suicide.

Drugs, and infighting took over the band. I would argue that this conflict was good for the art as long as the whole could be sustained, but in the end it simply could not continue. Post Cale Velvets is a quieter affair, a poppier proposition. Yule provided a certain lighter touch, and indeed some of my favorite music ever created. I will stand on Cale’s coffee table in boots of shiny shiny leather and assert that Sweet Jane, from Loaded, is the most perfect pop song ever written. This documentary also answered the question of just how obsessed with Lou Reed am I….answering probably just obsessed as Lester Bangs ever became. The long segment, presumably ripped from Warhol’s archives (again, the provenance and origin of material missing from the screen in favor of the look of Hayne’s art house yearnings), of Lou Reed eating a Hershey’s bar, had me transfixed. Lou was dismantling the chocolate bar in a way that I can only describe as focused. Andy (and, I suspect, Haynes) knew the value of the mundane. Those unique moments and images that invite the voyueristic watcher into an intimate space with the artist.

We are taken by Haynes on a journey with the Velvets, a velvet evolution of forming, living, dying and the afterlife of a band broken up into it’s constituent parts and various solo projects of varying success. Lou Reed of course blossomed into LOU REED, rock and roll animal. Cale continued his avant guarde path. Mo worked in a different kind of factory with computers. Sterling became a professor. Yule faded in to obscurity. The final scene of Lou and Andy debriefing each other after the break up of the band, a gentle summarizing of the final scores is a triumph of filmmaking. The angles, the voices, the sheer impact of the reality, the no holds barred intimacy, the ‘curtains laced in diamonds dear for you’ preciousness of it all!

As the documentary plays out, Lou sings ‘here comes the waves’, in a demo version of Ocean, and waves become a theme Lou continues to explore throughout his career: waves of fear, waves of genius, waves of emotion, waves of noise…A veritable tsunami of emotion that Reed shared raw with his audience. Lou ‘tried for the kingdom’. He earnt it and then some. He earnt it, the Velvets played it, and Haynes documented it.

The Velvets were the living embodiment of Warhol’s pop art sensibilities, and Haynes does not disappoint – this is packed with the pain and pleasure of visual and aural feedback. Haynes is not scared of the black screen, of burred lights, of impressionist scattered images and a muted screen that comes alive with acid brights and the enduring iconoclastic image of a band that ranged from the icy beauty of Nico, to Mo’s androgyny behind the drums, to Lou’s leather jacketed sneer and Cale’s thin austere frame and demeanor and Sterling’s enigmatic presence. Yule is but a ghost in the factory machine.

I know one thing, this is a vital record of the most important art scene of the last hundred years, and it is more than adequate: it is rock and roll…and you know what Lou said….:

Our lives were saved by rock and roll.


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