Review: “The Velvet Underground” is a chaotic look at the life of the famed band

Review: "The Velvet Underground" is a chaotic look at the life of the famed band

The film documents the life of Lou Reed, the frontman of the band and a Syracuse alum, and violinist John Cale who started the Velvet Underground.
Published: October 18, 2021

"The Velvet Underground" documents the prolific band of the same name directed with the era’s avant-garde spirit by Todd Haynes.

It’s hard to describe “The Velvet Underground” documentary as a traditional documentary or a film. It’s an experience, or better yet an exhibit; it’s something meant to be felt and surrounded by. Todd Haynes’, the director, created this documentary through a series of contemporary and archival interviews, – b-roll and old footage – that transported me into the musical avant-garde world of art in the 1960s through the eyes of the founders of The Velvet Underground: Lou Reed, the frontman of the band and a Syracuse alum, John Cale, who played violin.

This documentary is made for intensely subjective viewing. I believe all art is like this, but it was much more noticeable in this film. As someone who didn’t have much knowledge of this band before watching the film, and isn’t the biggest fan of experimental, avant-garde music, this band was not for me. However, I assume fans of this band will adore this documentary.

I must note that although I didn’t enjoy the music the documentary was about, I found myself fascinated by the band’s story, and the complicated environment surrounding it.

The 2-hour documentary tells the story of the band chronologically: from getting the band together, to meeting Andy Warhol, to adding members, to the band’s breakup. Haynes did this by piecing a mosaic together of contemporary and archival clips. He layered colorful interviews with black and white Warhol movies of the members in the band, and chaotic b-roll footage from the time. Sometimes Haynes played the band’s music in its full form, while other times he isolated instrumentals from the songs to show the band’s evolution, and help the audience understand the different parts of its music.

“So using that material felt fortified by the narrative and the history,” Haynes said in an interview with Slate. “But then once we had the stuff at our disposal, we just went for it. The music becomes visualized. And the culture becomes visualized. Not in a literal, illustrative way, but really the bloodstream of the culture we were trying to show through the films.”


Alternative Text
Archival split-screen frames from “The Velvet Underground,” capture the chaotic nature of the music and the documentary.

The stars of the documentary are the founders of the band: Reed and Cale. Haynes introduces them by playing black and white Warhol movies of the pair standing in place, and trying not to blink on half of the screen, while archive footage and photos of their childhood shuffled through on the other half. Overall, this footage was Cale and Reed explaining their respective childhoods, and how they ended up in New York City.

These introductions painted a picture that not only helped me understand the musicians and how they got to the band, but helped me meet them where they were at. The compilation begged me to consider the aesthetics and styles of the time, and see how those things impacted the band, without letting my own bias seep into the viewing.

“The Velvet Underground” also uses a 21st century lens to reframe history and address the issues of sexism and homosexuality that have been glossed over in the past. The documentary, very candidly, discusses the challenges Reed faced with his sexuality. In the summer of 1959, the star underwent shock therapy treatment. Showing his challenges reframed the story, which allowed me to better understand Reed and the band within the context of its time and place from a well-rounded perspective.

Whatever it is that I just experienced felt authentic, it felt deeply rooted in taste – though not aligned with mine – but I respect it. It challenged me to enter the world of this band and try to understand what they were doing and why they were so influential – whether I liked it or not.

“The Velvet Underground” is streaming on Apple TV+.