Apple TV+ film review: The Velvet Underground
James R | On 15, Oct 2021
Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Lou Reed, Jonathan Richman, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, Mary Woronov
Hands up if you don’t know much about The Velvet Underground. You’re not the only one – despite being one of the most influential bands of the 1960s and 1970s, they’ve never been a mainstream success on the same level as The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. A documentary about them by Todd Haynes – a filmmaker with an appreciation of subversive outsiders – is therefore the most natural thing in the world.
The group, which formed in the 1960s, comprised singer-songwriter Lou Reed and composer John Cale, drummer Moe Tucker and guitar player Sterling Morrison. They worked with German singer Nico, and had a manager/producer relationship with none other than Andy Warhol. If that sounds like a lot of conflicting voices and styles, you wouldn’t be wrong, and the band’s longstanding legacy stems from that clash of the artistic and the mainstream, which resulted in something that, well, wasn’t commercial at the time but was certainly distinctive.
Haynes’ approach to the documentary is to embrace that avant-garde streak, and it’s something driven by both creativity and necessity. Compared to other bands of the time, there’s notably less footage of The Velvet Underground caught on camera, which means that the usual mainstay of a music documentary – concert videos, rehearsal snippets – are generally absent. Instead, Haynes pieces together a puzzle from fragments of images and talking heads. Playing out largely in split-screen, he juxtaposes images of the time with slow-motion, black-and-white profile shots that originate in screen tests for Warhol.
It’s a dreamy, psychedelic piece, and Haynes and his editors – Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz – do a fantastic job of assembling what is quite possible every piece of material that’s ever been available relating to The Velvet Underground. With Reed having passed away almost a decade ago, the duty of recounting events mostly falls to Cale, who eventually left the band when Reed squeezed him out. If that means things feel a bit lopsided, that’s only to Haynes’ advantage, as it places more weight on the band’s artistic side than its rock ’n’ roll streak – Haynes even avoids the usual device of recruiting modern music critics and celebrities to talk about the impact of the band.
The result isn’t particularly accessible for newcomers, which will leave those hoping for an easy introduction to the group somewhat wanting, but it feels more personal than that. This is a vivid, immersive portrait of artists who emerged from the avant-garde scene of the 1960s, capturing the aesthetics, sounds and influences that swirled in their tumultuous melting pot of ideas and ambition. It’s an offbeat, fascinating, underdog affair – in other words, it’s exactly the kind of film The Velvet Underground would make.
Dickinson is available on Apple TV+, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription, with a seven-day free trial. For more information on Apple TV+ and how to get it, click here.