Todd Haynes' 'The Velvet Underground' Understands What Makes a Great Rock Documentary

This fractured portrait of the beloved band, out on Apple TV+, is more than just an exercise in '60s nostalgia.

the velvet underground, john cale, sterling morrison, lou reed at the factory
John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Lou Reed at The Factory. | Apple TV +
John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Lou Reed at The Factory. | Apple TV +

There's a type of nostalgic music documentary that's content to play the hits, providing all the surface pleasures of a well-executed jukebox musical with some charming anecdotes and self-serving moments of reflection, and then there's a second type that digs deeper. As a showcase for the music of a great band, Todd Haynes' The Velvet Underground does not disappoint: Loud and visceral, the film reanimates songs like "All Tomorrow's Parties," "Venus in Furs," or "Heroin" that might feel like canonical relics of the '60s when deployed by less deft hands. If you're a fan, it will send you back to the original albums with new zeal. If the group is only something you know from banana t-shirts and that classic quote about how everyone who bought their first record formed a band, it will likely make you a convert.

The movie's greatest accomplishment is positioning these gnarled, beautiful sounds in a specific time and place, evoking a moment without sentimentalizing the past or erasing the contradictions. An unwavering chronicler of pop music in the second half of the 20th century, Haynes is used to playing the role of cultural puzzle-maker: He emerged with 1987's experimental Superstar about Karen Carpenter and has made essayistic narrative films examining the legacies of David Bowie (Velvet Goldmine) and Bob Dylan (I'm Not There). Profiles and interviews with Haynes often mention that he studied semiotics at Brown, and while it can feel strange to continuously note what a 60-year-old director with a vast filmography focused on as an undergrad, that background and intellectual framework appears to still inform his work. As a piece of filmmaking, The Velvet Underground succeeds because it approaches the band with a degree of rigor that's rare in a genre often driven by fan-like devotion.

the velvet underground
Apple TV+

That approach likely at least partially emerged from the circumstances the film was made under. Lou Reed, the prickly lead singer of the group, died in 2013; Nico, the singer who brought such intensity to the band's debut record, died in 1988; Sterling Morrison, the guitarist responsible for so many of the band's haunted tones and textures, died in 1995; Andy Warhol, the overseer of The Factory scene the band emerged from and the producer of that first record, died in 1987. Structurally, there's an absence at the center of the film. While living members John Cale and Moe Tucker give candid, revealing interviews, the film can only rely on the "talking heads" oral history format so much to tell the story.

What does Haynes fill the void with? Context, mostly. Through an elegant use of split-screen and a keen understanding of citation as discipline, he recreates the avant-garde cultural moment in New York that the band emerged from, speaking with figures of the era like film critic Amy Taubin, who appeared in Warhol's Screen Tests and helps puncture the often reverential mythology surrounding the scene. "It was not a good place for women," she observes. Unlike in Edgar Wright's recent The Sparks Brothers, modern artists who were influenced by the group are never trotted out to gush and genuflect. Musician Jonathan Richman speaks to the band's transformative power, but he was a figure who was there, a boots-on-the-ground early appreciator.

Though it doesn't feel like worship, there's a tenderness to Haynes' treatment of the band. If you've read Please Kill Me or similar books about punk's early days, which are filled with examples of Reed's misbehavior, that might be surprising. The movie doesn't shy away from the internal power struggles, creative disputes, and acts of cruelty that occurred as the band broke through with 1967's The Velvet Underground and Nico and evolved over the next few years, shedding members and exploring new sonic terrain. But it never traffics in glibness, either. It feels lame to describe the movie in such blunt terms, but there might not be a better way to put it: The Velvet Underground is a very cool movie, one that understands matters of taste and style on an almost instinctual level. 

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.