Todd Haynes Velvet Underground film, a review

The Velvet Underground is important to me for two reasons. First, I have a high degree of respect for musical outsiders, those who choose to vary from the expectations for sound. That doesn’t mean I enjoy listening repeatedly to every outsider and experimental musician. I ignore and sample listlessly more of it than most mainstream listeners ever do. And some of it, and the Velvet Underground is one of those “some,” does something for me that other more generally likeable music doesn’t.

The second reason? Despite or because of their musical oddities, they attracted social outsiders. Haynes film reminds us that Cher* was once famously quoted as saying the VU would “replace nothing except suicide.” That was clearly understood as a slam on their dark outlook. It’s also commendably true in another way — that for some people this band of strangeness comforted some who felt unacceptably strange.

It’s OK, really, if you don’t like the Velvet Underground’s music. But I hold that you should still be grateful they existed. So how about Haynes film revisiting their formation and career? Grateful there too, though I want to second-guess Haynes more than most reviewers of this documentary. Before I do that, let me say that I respect the effort to put this together. Just looking at the long, long scroll of rights holders that needed to be placated and credited tells you that this was no easy thing to bring off.

Throughout the film I was thinking “they aren’t putting enough context here for those not already knowledgeable about this scene to understand who and what is happening.” However, reviewers have been almost universally kind, and this section of mid-20th-century NYC history can’t be all that widely known in detail to reviewers in 2021. This indicates that enough must come through for some. Perhaps I underestimate the value of samples of things to satisfy or attract interest, and overestimate the missing details that I personally find interesting or telling.

Am I being fair? The film does supply enough detail to see how the Mekas school of art film and the Fluxus associated music scene became the soil in which the band took root. And while it might not be surprising given that this is a film made by a filmmaker, I had not seen any other account that made an effort to tie those film and music threads together. So, props to that effort, but watching the documentary I wondered how many fresh eyes would be able to understand the variety of things the Jonas Mekas DIY film circle was experimenting with. Early in the film I watched a Stan Brakhage clip appearing on the left split screen, an experiment in drawing with light by scratching directly on the film stock. Annoying pedant that I am, I pointed at the screen and enthusiastically shouted out that that was Brakhage’s work. I stifled myself quickly, but the film didn’t credit it on screen at the time. I could surmise that not identifying it was part of the effect that Haynes wished to convey, that a sense of “what can you do that is novel and different” was ubiquitous then and there.

One hole I noted was any contextualization of how other bands and musicians beyond La Monte Young and John Cage influenced the VU sound and the courage of its exploration. R&B influences appear visually in the film, and early on some doo wop stunningly segues** into what I think was a La Monte Young piece, and I thought this side of VU’s influences would be demonstrated, but that brilliant moment was not repeated or expanded on. As a composer, half-baked musician, and writer I would have gone there, but I’m not Haynes, and he’s the filmmaker who made the film.

In general, other possible musical connections were lightly inferred. Perhaps this area is rock fan trivia? There was a passing mention of how Bob Dylan had opened up songwriting. In one film clip Allen Ginsburg is announcing an event which will include VU, other parts of the Warhol scene, and the Fugs, and Ginsburg nods to Fugs’ principal Ed Sanders in the room. The VU and the Fugs*** seem to have formed close to the same time, 1964, and despite The Fugs not having a John Cale figure, both were groups of Greenwich Village poets forming a band whose material will be unafraid to shock general society. I’ve never found any mention of either band knowing of each other, yet in the small world of NYC in the mid 60 they had to. We do know the Mothers of Invention and VU knew of each other — and in summary seemed to hate each other, perhaps because these two groups clearly competed in format to the degree that any so unique conceptions could compete. Given that the Mothers were West Coast until a summer-long stint in the Village in 1967, it’s less likely they knew of each other at their formation in 64-65 however. Here’s a link to a short run-down of those frictions.

Moving to my poetry side, there was also no mention made of the beatnik jazz-accompanied poetry which must have also fed into this band’s conception, even though Lou Reed’s college teacher Delmore Schwartz’s dark but unaccompanied poetry is covered

The included footage of the ‘66-‘67 Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows looks fascinating. In the interviews regarding the oft-told tales of the VU’s 1966 west coast tour EPI performer Mary Woronov mentions that west coast light shows were not in the same class. Yet another report from eye-witnesses says that the EPI shows were haphazard with inexperienced hangers-on and even audience members running the lights. This might have been a night-by-night difference over the run of the EPI. Or it could just be home team cheerleading by the VU/Warhol entourage. The transience of the multimedia lightshow/music events of this era makes this so hard to evaluate, and that era of improvisational multimedia collage surrounding live music has largely left our culture. In its place we have giant video screens so that we can assay the length of the lead singer’s nose hairs at concerts. It’s likely no one cares anymore who was first or better in this field, alas.****

One fleeting remark made when discussing how the West Coast Scene and the Velvets contrasted was an observation that there was an overlap in fans of VU and the Grateful Dead. I’m reminded of what I wrote here in 2016 about how it was too easy to paint all the West Coast bands as dilettante flower power Pollyannas and the VU as dark, hardened, and street-tough:

“Each band is fronted by a guitarist who has a problem with heroin. The bass player (and sometimes the keyboard player) is really an avant-garde classical composer. They both start out playing to dancers swimming in colored lights at events heavily associated with and promoted by a non-musician guru. Both bands had trouble selling records, at least at first, but those who did buy the records started forming bands beloved by cliques of college students. Both bands are known for an un-compromising poet maudit stance. Of course, one band hangs out with gangsters leading to a well-publicized incident of an audience member getting killed at a show. One wanted to call an album “Skull F**k.” One band put a drug kingpin in charge of its sound system. The other band hung out a lot with artists in lofts and had girl-germs for letting a woman be their drummer.”

Reviewers made much of the film breaking the talking heads format for music documentaries. Now having seen it, this point was oversold in reviews and publicity. Haynes had an authenticity policy of only using “eyewitnesses” who actually saw the band and its circle for his contemporary interviews. This only reduces the candidates, and those used, are used rather conventionally but effectively. I do hope that some of the interview material only excerpted in the movie is made available as a scholarly resource.

The subject of Lou Reed’s mercurial personality gets some play — an inescapable choice. Haynes shows us the VU was a combination of ingredients, but the idea that Reed’s is the largest contribution is hard to argue with. It was good to see Cale given his due here. Percussionist Tucker and guitarist Morrison’s contributions are mentioned but these mentions are comparatively brief. For example, the sole example of Tucker’s contribution to the band’s sound concerns one short (if endearing) featured vocal. If percussion is important to you, this hour-long video is an extraordinarily good dissection and demonstration of Moe Tucker’s musical contribution to the VU sound. On the other hand, I think Morrison’s musical contributions get less than a minute in the film. Was Sterling Morrison just that unimportant to the band? Has anyone who saw the band or witnessed the recordings ever outlined his contributions to the VU unconventional two-guitar attack? Is there just no one to speak for him on musical matters, and so Haynes had nothing to leave out?

Nico was always peripheral to the band, though interesting in her own right. In her case, I think Haynes does justice to the connection.

Back to Reed. The film hints at a more out and homosexual Sixties Reed than some other accounts I’ve read. The Rashomon aspect of who’s talking shouldn’t be surprising. Nods to transgressive gayness and gayness’ connection with the demi-monde (which was common linkage then, in gay and homophobic worlds both) was part of the band’s appeal without a doubt. Haynes presents this visually in a matter of fact way. This became culturally important, as important as the music — and in an odd way helped us into a world where gayness is no longer inevitably connected with a thoroughgoing outsiderdom.

The film once briefly nods to elements of misogyny in the scene. Some documentaries would never have made even that brief mention. My wife noticed this too and added that both the women and the musicians appeared to be treated as merely decorative by the Warhol Factory. In this matter, the scene too often, too easily followed mainstream culture and even the ironic elements of camp are subject to the mask becoming the face. In its defense, we could enter the question if it was less patriarchal, or no worse, than the general Sixties popular music scene.

The loud, aggro VU is fine, but then there’s this side. Here, you can hear the entirety of “Candy Says” referenced below. Doug Yule’s disarming vocal and Reed’s songwriting are superb here.

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All the film’s en passant moves may still capture. Something informative and entertaining did  accumulate over the course of the film’s two hours, but the emotional impact was less than I expected. We are not compelled to care about the human beings on the screen even as we consider them for their exceptional choices. Haynes respects and expects the audience to bring that element themselves. A personal emotional exception within the body of the film: 15 seconds of “Candy Says”  plays to help introduce us to John Cale’s controversial successor in the group, Doug Yule, who sang this Lou Reed song on record. Musically, there’s nothing avant garde about the song, but it’s emotionally gripping to me, more so now. The documentary’s  final sequences help summarize things a little. If an audience sticks it out, and brings their own empathy and intelligence to it, my summary is that the film could encourage some people today who wish to do something off-the-beaten path artistically; and Haynes’ film has rewards for those who are established fans of VU, whatever size that grouping is today.*****   Should I be concerned about the size of the audience? After all, there are still Velvet Underground performances that can all but clear a room in minutes. The principal members of the Velvet Underground consciously chose that path, deciding to choose an audience who would stay for contrasts and experiments, an audience that in turn found a community of understanding when some of those and their experiments weren’t welcomed.

After 2,000 words in this review I’m hesitant to ask any more of your attention today, but here’s a short piece, “Up-Hill”  I did several years ago where I combined Christina Rossetti’s Christian allegory with some VU inspired music. Player below for some, highlighted hyperlink for those that won’t see the player.

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*It’s such a slick quote that I wondered if it was actually written by a publicist to be attributed to her. This was once a common tactic, for ghost-written quotes to be given to nightlife and gossip columnists as the clever things that celebrities were to have said in order to keep the pot of notoriety boiling for their charges.

**This was also something integral to Frank Zappa’s music. Late 60s listeners thought Zappa was just taking the piss out of an outdated pop music format when he’d do R&B vocal harmony, but he would tell anyone who asked that he loved that music and saw it as a valid sound and compositional color. The additional truth that satire was involved was incidental. There was satire involved when Zappa referenced Stravinsky, Berg, and Webern too.

***The definitive third-party consideration of The Fugs remains unwritten and unfilmed. It’s often occurred to me that The Fugs formation was as much or more than the Velvets, or The Stooges, or the Ramones, or the Sex Pistols the genesis moment of Indie Rock, and for punk outrage they easily outranked that list of founders even if the quality of their musical achievement was more inconsistent.

****Is revival possible? A few 21st century artists are still exploring this, for example guitarist Kaki King.

*****I suspect that within later generations now, there may be another grouping unfamiliar with the Velvet Underground, for whom the old joke can be repurposed “You mean, Lou Reed was in a band?”

One thought on “Todd Haynes Velvet Underground film, a review

  1. An update for those still interested in the questions I had when I wrote this review. I found a source that does provide greater depth of information, Richie Unterberger’s “White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-by-Day.” http://www.richieunterberger.com/vu.html Unterberger’s a treasure for the detail-oriented whenever he writes. He’s young enough (born in 1962) that he would have been a toddler in the VU’s formative years, but he uses modern shoe-leather and research work to gather information from those who were there and evaluates it intelligently. A lot of music books are gossip centered, others big-picture “what does this all mean” theories, Unterberger’s aren’t lacking in those baser-to-philosophical bits, but his research and organization of materials is rarer.

    I’m only a third of the way into this 1200 page deep-dive, but here are a few things I’ve learned regarding my questions. Yes, they knew of the Fugs and the Fugs knew of the VU. No one admits to influences so far. The Fugs were likely a few months ahead of VU in most career milestones. Significant comments on Jazz and Afro-American avant garde influences from those in the Warhol or VU circle are also slim, though biographically we know influences were present there for Lou Reed. I don’t fault Unterberger (or Haynes) too much for this, I think it’s a function of the cultural white-centric outlook that extended into bohemian circles — and perhaps even more particularly, what those seeking to establish their cultural status then would reference for credibility. If you are trying to establish that you are solemn capital A Art in 1965-66 America, you don’t reference African-American influences — or shambolic musical aggregations drenched in low-humor like the Fugs for that matter. Nor are Asian influences on the music discussed by the principals, but the significant connections there beg to be mentioned.

    What was Sterling Morrison’s musical contribution to the Velvet Underground? Is it really too mundane to consider? I may still find out more as I proceed into the book. The only thing I learned so far is confirmation that he generally played electric bass when Cale was occupied on keyboards or viola, and that he disliked doing that.

    The book explains the technology used by the Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows. It was different than what the Acid Tests and early West Coast Hippie ballrooms had to use, if not necessarily adding up to a clearly superior experience. Just as the Warhol/VU circle think they were better, the West Coast folks were sure at the time that they were doing multimedia better. One difference: multiple film projectors, up to six of them for the EPI. Warhol was able to swing that extra equipment by trading lithographs for cash or equipment directly. Another difference: the EPI’s audience effect was more assaultive, the left-coast stuff more meditative.

    Speaking of film, the book, taken along with the Haynes’ documentary completely nails the important formative influence of NYC avant garde filmmakers and their events on the emergence of the Velvet Underground.

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