Todd Haynes has created an intoxicating documentary about the legendary avant-garde band that was the Velvet Underground. Starting with some key moments from the early 1960s, most notably Walter Cronkite’s announcement of the assassination of JFK, the footage sets the scene for the genesis of one of the century’s most seminal and exciting bands.
Haynes uses an almost constant split screen throughout the film, shifting between close-ups of the band member under discussion, footage from contemporary events and plenty of sequences taken at Andy Warhol’s Factory, where the band truly came into being. When not employing the split screen, Haynes treats us to a stream of entertaining interviewees: erstwhile band members John Cale and Moe Tucker, Lou Reed’s sister, the singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman and others all give their take on the band’s beginnings, development and eventual demise.
Cale in particular is such an erudite speaker about the music, but he is also willing to talk about his painful past with a story that would be funny if it weren’t so sad – the Welsh valley boy whose English father was banned from speaking his native tongue in their home and whom he could not communicate with for the first seven years of his life. Painful paternal experiences were also suffered by Reed, whose distant and uninvolved father was partially responsible for all the later rage and depression.
The use of the split screen (usually a trio of different images) helps to depict the different stories and truths for those who were involved in the band in some way at the time, each with their own perspective. For this is an extremely convoluted tale of chance meetings, serendipitous comings together and Warhol’s influence. Without Warhol there would have been no Nico in the band and his credit as a producer meant that they were free to record their music without interference.
There is so much to love here: the ex-Factory members’ hilarious disparagement of hippies, who they despised, friends talking about Reed being a rubbish singer, the in-depth analysis of how the music was created and the warmth and affection of all the speakers, most notably Richman. He talks of how the band changed his life, how they spoke to him and how he followed them concert after concert. And his memory of Moe Tucker singing live in Texas is a stand-out moment.
There is some sadness, too, of course: Nico is gone, Reed is gone, Bowie is gone, as are many others involved in this complex, intimate tale. The acrimony and Cale’s ousting from the band are painful. Yet the overriding tone is one of enormous respect and love: seeing the band members reunite in later life was an emotional moment and watching these now elderly speakers talk about that seminal time and even get up and dance is a joy. For anyone new to the band, the exceptional song-writing capabilities (‘Heroin’ in particular is given a lot of time) as well as the musical prowess of the band will be an education. Even if you don’t like the Velvet Underground, if you love music then you’ll love this film.