Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground (2021) is less a paint-by-numbers history of a band than it is a mapping of events and confluent cultural currents that, by kismet, intersected with the personal ambitions of John Cale and Lou Reed. The Velvet Underground, like the band it’s named for, is a work of art about a life for art; a life lived collectively in flux actively seeking out the rawest, most urgent forms of expression. It’s no mistake that Haynes’ film focuses so little on the band’s output after their partnership with Warhol dissolved.
Formally, Haynes’ utilizes all of the standard documentary strategies to construct The Velvet Underground. Haynes interviewed dozens of individuals (including John Cale, Maureen Tucker, Mary Woronov, Jonathan Richman, Jonas Mekas) who feature, visually, as medium close-up “talking heads”. These interviews are augmented by audio-only interviews with deceased participants (Lou Reed, Nico, Andy Warhol, David Bowie) which are laid over archival footage and rapid montages of still photographs. The “found” materials in The Velvet Underground are sourced from the films of Warhol, Mekas, Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger, Tony Conrad, and various news broadcasts while the photographs come from private collections including the archive at The Andy Warhol Museum.
All of this is standard practice for a film about a rock band. The thing that Todd Haynes does in The Velvet Underground that makes the film special and unique to its subject is to adopt many of the strategies that Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey employed in their films. For instance, the numerous split-screen effects in The Velvet Underground that suggest a spacial link between disparate subjects is overtly derivative of Chelsea Girls (1966). Likewise, Haynes’ choice to slow down footage of the band shot at a higher speed intentionally recreates the effects in the Eat and Kiss films. In this way The Velvet Underground is a film about The Velvet Underground as cultural event presented in the idiom of the cultural event of The Velvet Underground.
What negative criticism of The Velvet Underground that exists has been brought about by the fact that some critics are simply ignorant of Haynes’ methodology and its roots in Warhol’s cinematic world. A fact by fact, moment by moment account of The Velvet Underground already exists in the form of numerous books and articles so is therefore of little interest to any filmmaker. What Haynes understands is that The Velvet Underground represents the first multi-media rock group and lends itself, almost inherently, to the medium of film. The Velvet Underground, as a film, is montage; is collage. With sound and image The Velvet Underground pinpoints a unique moment in the history of American art and culture in the twentieth century.
If one watches The Velvet Underground for gossip or sensationalism, one is going to be disappointed. But if a viewer goes into the film open to the music and images, then the links that Haynes makes with Warhol’s own cinematographic dialect will be transportive. This is the aim of the film and it is precisely what the film succeeds at. Haynes asks the questions “why did The Velvet Underground happen and why did it matter?” and the images/sounds he found answered those questions.