‘The Velvet Underground’ review: revisionist doc reworks narrative of New York rock and rollers

Todd Haynes' big-screen biography evokes an intoxicating era – but sidelines the band's creative heart

It seems obvious to say that Lou Reed wouldn’t have liked this biography of his band The Velvet Underground, because received wisdom tells us that Lou Reed didn’t really like anything.

But it bears saying here, because the pervading narrative of Todd Haynes’ documentary is one of Lou Reed sticking doggedly to an off-hand comment repeated at the beginning of the movie, in which he explained to a record company executive that his aim was to “get rich and be a rock star” by any means, whether that meant cracking out cheapo doo-wop songs for Pickwick Records or fronting novelty song ‘The Ostrich’ with pre-Velvets band The Primitives.

The saviour of Lou’s soul arrives in the ghoulish form of John Cale, a softly-spoken, enigmatic and understated Welshman whose Erik Satie fandom and enormous talent had led him to New York City in the early 1960s. Cale is presented to us as the man whose drone sounds turned turd into tinsel.

Reed’s agency as bandleader and songwriter is further eroded with the attention Haynes affords to Andy Warhol, whose sponsorship of the band brought them notoriety if not success (they never really had success). Were this a story about a maniacal music manager and not Andy Warhol, actions like implanting the mesmerising, robotic German actor Nico as singer and ‘face’, sending the band to play their songs about drugs and societal outliers for monied, disinterested art speculators, and giving a bunch of heroin addicts a whole year to make a debut album (the one that Cale charmingly dismisses as “the banana album”) might seem controlling and ill-advised – especially when we’ve already established Reed as someone whose emotionally distant father and childhood transplant from Brooklyn to stultifying suburbia left him with a whole mess of complex issues.

Haynes doesn’t tease the seams of Warhol’s reputation too much, even when Factory girl Amy Taubin points out that Warhol’s club was welcoming only to women if they were strikingly beautiful. But this is a film more about celebration than interrogation, and Warhol’s vast collection of beautifully shot art movies of the band and associates informs a visual style and quality that’s difficult to maintain in an archive documentary (no creaky newsreel footage here).

Haynes is clearly in thrall to that banana album, as the lion’s share of the film is dedicated to it, sidelining works of heartbreaking greatness like Reed’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ or ‘Sweet Jane’ to passing mention status. By the end of the movie, Reed is pictured smiling – SACRILEGE! – in a Velvets lineup of second-rate stringers, wearing a nasty psychedelic shirt. That should have been verboten for these frowning, black-clad hippy-haters, who, as drummer Maureen Tucker puts it, felt the flower power generation should “get real”. The message seems to be that Reed was a phoney, lacking in conviction and driven by commercial success, too drunk on his own ego to recognise that Cale was not just the talent of the band, but the soul. Now, no matter what you might think about Laughing Lou, have you ever thought that?! The dude did ‘Metal Machine Music’!

Equally, some might think sanitising the story of the band that first found the beauty in hard reality an unforgivable act of revisionism, but Haynes isn’t interested in the dirt, the drugs or the decline towards ignominy, because it’s the beauty of this world that appeals to him, not the ugliness. In 1998, Haynes’ fictional Velvet Goldmine told the story of an incandescent but doomed talent who was so closely modelled on one famous Lou Reed associate he might as well have been called Bavid Dowie. It showed great passion for the glamour of the world where art, fashion and music combine, if not great experience in making films. More than 20 years later, and with 2015’s exceptional Carol under his belt, Haynes revisiting this subject, but with real Velvet Underground songs, footage and interviews – feels like a rite of passage.

Details

  • Director: Todd Haynes
  • Featuring: Lou Reed, Nico, Maureen Tucker, Sterling Morrison, Andy Warhol
  • Release date: TBC (NME attended a screening as part of Cannes Film Festival)
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