Andy Warhol was not known for his philanthropy, but he left a gift to film-maker Todd Haynes. What better motif for his new documentary The Velvet Underground than Warhol’s 1966 film of co-band leaders Lou Reed and John Cale, each studiedly gazing into the camera, as if wholly aware the result would one day end up in a movie about their greatness? Haynes’s ardent group history extends to the other members too: autodidact Moe Tucker, shy Sterling Morrison, the daunting Nico. But that tense central double act is drama from the off — Reed the vicious rock’n’roller, Cale the languid Welsh avant-gardist. It was two plus two, the latter says, that equalled seven — the band who famously sold no records and remade rock music doing it.
True to the spirit of his subjects, Haynes offers no beginner’s guide. Instead, he opens with a quote from Baudelaire and the kinky screech of BDSM anthem “Venus in Furs”. The music is celebrated, of course. But the film does more than illustrate the greatest hits. Haynes uses the songs the way a film-maker should, slicing them up to accent his story. So while “I’m Waiting for the Man” comes and goes, a chunk of screen time is devoted to Reed and Cale’s obscure — and irresistible — pre-Velvets collaboration “The Ostrich”.
The start of it all is what pushes the movie’s buttons. Some of that may be expedience. The band had a recording life of just three years — and while their time with Warhol at the Factory is diligently covered, most of that story has been told already. Instead, the film dives deep into the pre-counterculture of early Sixties New York, a hip simmer of sexual and artistic revolt. Only here, Haynes suggests, could his stars have collided: Reed exiting suburbia after electroshock treatment; Cale in flight from his own demons. The anger in their glamour was real. (The drugs didn’t help.) He was dark, an acquaintance says of Cale. Unpleasable, Cale calls Reed.
The last time the director re-told musical history, the result was I’m Not There, his headspinner of a Bob Dylan biopic, six different actors playing the subject. Now the experimentation is more modest — whirring split screens to frame a conventional mix of archive and talking heads. The most bracing moments come via Warhol again — fragments from the band’s multimedia stage show that once drew Jackie Kennedy, Rudolf Nureyev and various authentic juvenile delinquents. For a moment you feel the chaos in the air — before Haynes gently guides us towards the next exhibit.
In UK cinemas and on Apple TV Plus from October 15