Guest Star

A Hero is a Goddamn Stupid Thing to Have: Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground and the Dismantling of the Rock Doc

This week’s Guest Star is Nick Hanover. He writes about Todd Hayne’s documentary, The Velvet Underground (2021).

~~~

Before the Austin Film Society premiere screening of Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground, giddy fanboy/celebrated indie auteur Richard Linklater warned the audience this would not be your “typical music documentary experience.” Linklater didn’t expand too much on that prior to the film’s start, but during the Q&A after the film, he spoke in more depth, explaining that he, and most people he knew, stumbled into Velvet Underground fandom in cautionary fits and starts, through context-less exposure in music magazines and liner notes and, in Linklater’s specific case, an iconic photo of Lou Reed shooting up heroin live on stage that made it clear he was too young to be ready for the band at first exposure. “Music documentaries can be…I don’t want to say ‘boring,’ but very traditional,” Linklater opined, and what struck him about Haynes’s approach to this, his first feature documentary, was that it broke from the clear(er) narrative tradition of the hagiographic rock doc and presented the Velvet Underground as they largely existed: abstract, confrontational and, ultimately, too bright to last very long.

Where most music documentaries start with a clean and tidy biographical rundown of their subject(s), The Velvet Underground throws the viewer directly into the era that birthed them. Though the film eventually explains more of the origins of Lou Reed and his partner-cum-antagonist John Cale, it is only to help you feel the frustrations and intensity that birthed a group that was too raw and innovative to ever function in any other era than the future. Splicing together parallel screen test footage of the band’s central figures shot by Andy Warhol at The Factory and the band’s signature drone with an absurd but very real guest appearance by John Cale on an early talk show, Haynes immediately makes it clear he isn’t out to explain or summarize this band. Instead, Haynes wants you to inhabit their environment, to think of context instead of facts, and style instead of narrative.

As numerous other critics have pointed out, anyone expecting The Velvet Underground to fulfill that thrill of seeing previously unseen seamless live footage or practices or studio sessions will be sorely disappointed; this is more of a pop art collage than anything else. Likewise, any super fan expecting bombshell revelations or resurrected feuds is going to be let down. For the already initiated, there is basically nothing shocking here and how could there be with a band whose critical interest has always far surpassed the popular interest? 

This isn’t to say that The Velvet Underground is disappointing, though. Like Haynes’s quasi-fictional music films– namely Velvet GoldmineThe Velvet Underground is all about feeling and identity, and slotting erratic artistic geniuses into archetypes that they can shift at will. In this regard, Cale is the technical genius obsessed with pushing the limits of music, Reed is the moody primitive obsessed with feeling and danger (a key early anecdote in the film involves one of Reed’s first girlfriends talking about how Reed would take her with him to notorious heroin corners in New York more or less just to get songwriting material). 

After these two artistic forces collide during a particularly psychotic Brill building session to record a teen dance hit for Pickwick (“Do the Ostrich,” alas, did not become the new Twist), the rest of the pieces begin to fall together, like celestial bodies pulling everything else into their orbit.

The other band archetypes are easier to discern but also vital–Moe Tucker is the heart of the group, a proto-Meg White; Sterling Morrison is the George Harrison, a no-nonsense player who balanced out the egos of Reed and Cale. There are, of course, other figures who drift in and out of that orbit, beginning with Nico, a Factory It Girl who longed to be a poet and whose haunting voice and looks did as much to establish the band in the art realm as their Warhol patronage and iconography. 

Interviews with Tucker and behind the scenes luminaries like pioneering Company Freak Danny Fields and La Monte Young fill out some of the details of the Factory scene and the jealousy and in-fighting that made it clear almost immediately that the Velvets would eventually fragment and break free from Warhol. But it’s clear that for Haynes, and many others, the Factory era is the definitive incarnation of the Velvet Underground, and much of that was specifically because of the antagonism between Reed, Cale and Nico. 

Haynes spends a significant portion of the running time of the film on this era and it’s also when he weaves in the most footage of their performances and rehearsals. It is in this section that we hear the development of “Heroin” from a Delmore Schwartz inspired tone poem to an early masterpiece of noise rock, something that arguably could not have achieved its heights without the presence of Cale and his allegiance to drone. It is here that we also see slight footage of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia circus in action.

As pointed out later by Linklater, it almost feels wrong to even see any details of the Velvets stage show–the touring event has become such a mythical thing in art and rock history. Haynes and Linklater both discussed in their Q&A after the screening how it’s disappointing, in a way, that anybody anywhere can access the Velvet Underground at any time at the touch of a finger. Before streaming, it was a rite of passage to discover and then learn how to get into the Velvets and part of that involved learning bits and pieces about this Warhol-conceived stage show that shrouded the band in further mystery. It’s almost certain that a majority of music snobs, if queried High Fidelity-style about the one show they would want to go back in time to see, would pick the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. To his credit, rather than lean into that mystery and epic scope, Haynes largely deflates it.

Haynes spends more time letting contemporaries discuss the show than showing it, and those contemporaries almost all say it was a distraction from what actually made the band great. For Danny Fields and others, the show took away from the group’s already strong visual component by, to paraphrase I Think You Should Leave, putting too much fucking shit on it. The projector images covered up the band members and off stage you had live BDSM shows distracting audiences from the music and that, if anything, antagonized them. 

When the Inevitable went out to California, legendary promoter Bill Graham told the band he “hoped they fucking bombed” before they performed the set he himself had booked and Cher told the media that the Velvet Underground hype was exaggerated and that “the Velvet Underground won’t replace anything…except maybe suicide.” The tour also seems to have been the impetus for Reed dislodging Warhol, in part because people kept thinking Warhol was the lead guitarist of the band, which in turn prompted Nico to leave the group and eventually led to Reed sending Sterling Morrison to Cale’s apartment to tell him he was out too.

While it perhaps isn’t entirely fair to say Haynes sides with Cale, the director does seem to view him as the Lennon to Reed’s McCartney, and that is perhaps why the final third of the film feels a bit more rushed and compressed than the first half. Part of the imbalance could also be due to Cale being the only surviving member of the original group other than Tucker, and as a result he gets to explain his experiences directly. Reed is represented in archival recordings, as is Nico, to a lesser degree, but Reed, one of the most notoriously difficult interview subjects of all time, doesn’t get the same benefit of hindsight. It’s mostly left to associates of the band, like the ever excitable Jonathan Richman, to provide explanations they heard from Reed about why Cale had to be kicked out–namely because he was too avant-garde.

Haynes was also unable to interview Doug Yule, Cale’s eventual replacement, for the film and since Yule came from outside the New York avant-garde circle, there also isn’t the same wealth of footage to pull from to make the back section of the film match the Factory abstraction of the core of it. In a way, that fits the perhaps unconscious theme of the band’s history as yin and yang, of the chaotic darkness of the Cale-era and the raw brightness of the Reed dictatorship. 

Tucker and others discuss the eponymous third album and Loaded as attempts at pop from Reed– albeit still with plenty of furor and darkness. This connects back to interviews at the beginning of the film, where early Reed associates all mention that he was absolutely certain he was going to be a rock star and that he would tell anyone who would listen that this was his destiny. Yule is depicted as a far more agreeable partner than Cale had ever been and that he went a long way towards making the band a legit rock ensemble but there’s a sadness to Tucker’s descriptions of her experiences in this era, particularly once she is pregnant and is pushed out of the group altogether for the recording of Loaded.

This section is also the closest the film ever comes to feeling like a “traditional” rock documentary, as collaborators and associates all discuss what might have been, and of what they now recognize as signs that Reed was pulling away from the group, trying to carve out his own solo path. There’s even the reveal of a short fall from grace for Reed, when he fades out of the band altogether and Tucker hears he had to move back in with his parents, and that they were urging him to take typing lessons so he’d be able to find a different career path.

Ultimately Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground provokes more questions than answers about this iconic band and I have to agree with Linklater that that’s for the best. Dissociative, moody, beautiful and at times difficult, The Velvet Underground seeks to help establish a context for the music and its makers rather than to explain or dissect them. In terms of exploration and mystery, there will never again be another band like the Velvet Underground in our information overloaded era, nor will anyone born with access to the internet ever be able to understand that, but at least documents like this can offer a taste of that feeling of curiosity and uncertainty.

~~~

Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man, which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage over at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s