Documentary Review: Todd Haynes helps us remember “The Velvet Underground”

Todd Haynes, director of the Dylan-of-Many-Faces biography “I’m and Not There” and glam/punk appreciation “Velvet Goldmine,” isn’t interested in spoon-feeding anybody a history of “The Velvet Underground.”

Haynes figures if you show up for it (Apple TV+ has it), you already know a little something about the highly-influential/legendarily “unsuccessful” 1960s and early-70s band fronted by Lou Reed and John Cale, produced by Andy Warhol and sometimes featuring the imposing film starlet, model and singer Nico, “the blonde iceberg in the middle of the stage” filled with musicians and their avant-garde rock.

So what Haynes delivers is a lovely, warm and impressionistic sketch of the band — montages of images and archival news, interviews, “Factory” and concert footage to set the scene and place the Velvets within their time. That and old interviews with members no longer living and fresh, fond and sometimes blunt takes on why they matter from surviving members Cale and Maureen Tucker. Fans, relatives and others paint a picture of a famously-experimental band that (with Warhol) invented the ’60s version of “multi-media” musical performance and influenced generations that came after them.

Haynes “shows” us rather than “tells” us a lot of the basics. We see the cover of Michael Leigh’s scandalized 1963 book “The Velvet Underground,” an exploration of “paraphilia,” that the band took as its name — eventually.

We hear from Reed about his first interest in music, listening to “The Diablos, The Jesters, The Paragons, doo-wop, rockabilly,” and from childhood friends and Reed’s sister Merrill about his sexual curiosity, performing at New York’s Hayloft gay bar as a teen.

There’s nothing of Reed himself talking about his sexuality.

Cale is first seen in an appearance on the 1960s TV quiz show “I’ve Got a Secret,” where the Welshman’s 18 hour long performance of a piano piece by an avant-garde composer he knew is puzzled over, respectfully acknowledged and lightly ridiculed by the program’s panel.

Cale’s brief discussion of his childhood mentions how he “got taken advantage of” as a child. You have to know, or look up his life story to learn about his abuse at the hands of a music teacher and Anglican priest.

The film doesn’t dwell on drugs, barely touches on them in fact.

But we see footage of what Andy Warhol’s “Factory” was like, and hear ringing endorsements of how this artists’ coop/workspace “was all about the work,” the way the painter, film and music impresario pushed those he invited there, including Reed.

The Velvets — Reed and fellow guitarist Sterling Morrison, who met at Syracuse University, multi-instrumentalist and classically trained Cale, Morrison’s childhood friend, drummer Maureen “Moe” Tucker, and later, when Warhol got the idea they needed a sex symbol out front, Nico (Christa Päffgen) who was in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” — are heard and seen as they’re tracked through a surprisingly long and depressingly downhill career.

They started out as Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the “house band” at Warhol’s happening and hip “Factory,” became celebrated in New York for Cale’s “droning” musical backdrop on viola or whatever and Reed’s clever, arty and poetic pop sensibilities, made clear on songs such as “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “Heroin” and “Venus in Furs.”

It’s fascinating to hear snippets of Reed’s pubescent pop tunes — he cut his first record at 14 — and Cale talk about his early exposure to “the 60 cycle (motor) hum of the refrigerator,” which to him and his earliest collaborators was “the hum of Western civilization.”

Applying that primal “drone” to the texture of rock records made even their most poppish tunes distinct and strange.

“That weirdness, it shouldn’t have existed in this space” an early acolyte marvels.

“You need physics to describe that band at its height” another enthuses.

Haynes tracks down big fan Jonathan Richman (of The Modern Lovers, and the movie “There’s Something About Mary”) and he speaks adoringly of his experience meeting with and being mentored by members of the band. Jackson Browne, of all people, remembers playing guitar for Nico shows in the ’60s.

There’s not enough of the music, not really enough of the “experience” of seeing them live when they played with Warhol films projected behind them, psychedelic lights, “white polka dots” bathing them in performance, with Nico struggling to stay on pitch during her brief turn as a singer.

Immersive and informative as it is, that keeps “The Velvet Underground” from being definitive. And that in turn lets it fall short of making its case, backed up by musicians and music critics (not seen here), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, of their seminal status.

But Haynes handles the band’s post-breakup years in a lovely, warm final montage that celebrates Reed’s growing fame and later life, Cale’s revered status in music circles and the lives — too short, some of them — that this “it” band of the ’60s avant-garde went on to lead after shaking music up every bit as much as The Beatles, if not as profitably.

Rating: R for language, sexual content, nudity and some drug material

Cast: John Cale, Lou Reed, Maureen Tucker, Mary Woronov, Nico, Sterling Morrison, LaMonte Youung, Jackson Browne and Jonathan Richman

Credits: Scripted and directed by Todd Haynes. An Apple TV+ release.

Running time: 2:01

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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