The Velvet Underground Dir: Todd Haynes: Film Review

The Velvet Underground, Todd Haynes’ documentary about the iconic band, is very much like the music itself…at times hypnotic, dazzling, confounding and beautiful.

Though this is Haynes’ first documentary, the acclaimed director is no stranger to adding his cinematic touch to classic rock…see his unconventional treatment of Dylan in I’m Not There and his take on glam in Velvet Goldmine.

The Velvet UndergroundI know film fans love to worship at the feet of Martin Scorsese when it comes to music and film, but for my money, Haynes puts ol’ Marty to shame.

Just after watching the first 15 minutes of The Velvet Underground it becomes clear that Haynes understands that there is only one way to appreciate the music of The Velvet Underground and that’s to immerse oneself in it fully. And that’s what is needed to fully appreciate this film.

This a film made for fans and not for the uninitiated, so be warned if all you know about VU is that its Lou Reed’s old band.

Haynes takes his time working up to the formation of the group with in depth looks at the formative years of both Reed and John Cale.

The Velvet UndergroundAlthough Lou died in 2013, Cale is still with us as is VU drummer Mo Tucker (guitarist Sterling Morrison died in 1995).

The film was made with the full co-operation of the surviving bandmembers, families and estates, with interviews shot in 2018.

Along with Cale and Tucker, we hear from Lou’s sister, who attempts to set the record “straight” about her parents and the way they raised her brother. Also on hand are LaMont Young and Marian Zazeela, Mary Woronov, Jonathan Richman, Doug Yule (briefly) and Jonas Mekas, who died soon after filming.

If these names are foreign to you I would suggest a bit of Googling at the very least, or maybe just slap on a copy of Transformer and be happy.

The Velvet UndergroundMeanwhile the folks who “get” the Velvets should brace themselves for an audio and visual trip not unlike Andy’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable show. Haynes boldly mixes Factory film footage, vintage newsreel and previously unseen private footage to recreate the sound and feel of the time.

Remember that while the rest of youth culture was revelling in peace and love, these people were all about nihilism, anti-art and the avant-garde. Even today, Mo Tucker has nothing but distain for the hippie culture (although I personally feel her hatred of Zappa and The Mothers is misplaced).

It takes almost an hour into this two hour trip before the Velvets form, but the wait is worth it.

After explaining his fascination for the drone…and the significance of the 60-cylcle hum…Cale gives his side of the story of why and how he left the band after the second album and Tucker’s recollection seems to corroborate that it was Reed who gave Mo and Sterling the ultimatum…either Cale goes or he does.


I should mention Nico. After seeing her in this film, how can you not?

With comments from Factory vets and industry folks like Danny Fields, it becomes clear that originally the Velvets were presented as another artistic “outlet” for Andy Warhol, who ostensibly produced their first album, but more importantly, insisted that German model/actress Nico join the band. (Author and Factory scenester Amy Taubin has plenty to say about the misogyny that permeated The Factory).

Now, some 55 years later, we can appreciate the unlikely union of The Velvets and Nico but at the time it seemed like a crass commercial move.

But as we know, commercialism failed, The Velvets notoriously sold very few records and were roundly despised or ignored at the time by music fans, the media and fellow artists.

Of course that has all changed with The Velvet Underground is now acknowledged as one of the most influential bands ever up there with Dylan, Beatles, etc.  I’m sure the sound of Kiwi rock, especially the early Flying Nun bands, would be very different had they not droned on.

So, if you’re a curious newcomer to the Velvets, approach this film with caution, it may blow your mind, but fans will be thrilled that this very important band finally gets the respect they deserve.

Marty Duda