'The Velvet Underground' review: Doc explores bands roots, from inside

Director Todd Haynes paints a portrait of the band that's hypnotic if not entirely inviting to outsiders.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

As much about the New York City art scene that birthed it as it is about the band itself, "The Velvet Underground" presents an obtuse look at the seminal '60s rock outfit that doesn't adhere to any of the normal rules of music documentaries.

There are no outside voices to give context. There is very little performance footage. What there is are stories, told by band members both living and dead, and those who circled around them. "The Velvet Underground" is a transmission sent from inside the group's orbit, and those not already tuned to its frequency won't get the message.

Lou Reed in "The Velvet Underground."

The director is Todd Haynes, whose unconventional 2007 Bob Dylan biopic "I'm Not There" provides a bit of a roadmap here, at least in terms of outsider approach. Haynes uses an active split-screen format, positioning long, lingering shots of the band members staring into the camera against shots of the New York art scene, a technique that matches the hypnotic nature of the Velvets' music. 

The story of the Velvet Underground begins with Lou Reed, an extremely difficult New York kid who was always pushing back against something, who once put his fist through a window out of protest because he didn't want to play a show. Along with John Cale, a Welsh musician who could find the musicality in a single note being carried on for hours, and with a generous hand from Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground was formed as an art project-slash-experiment-slash-sonic exploration of the fringes of rock and roll. 

The band made five albums between 1967 and 1973, but "The Velvet Underground" is mostly concerned with the formation of the group and its place within Warhol's world, and spends a good chunk of its first hour focused on the NYC art scene of the 1960s. Haynes assumes viewers already have a working knowledge of Warhol's function in the culture, as well as a fair amount of knowledge about the Velvets. Which is fine, but it shuts out those on the ground floor looking for a way in. 

We hear from drummer Moe Tucker who, along with Cale, are the band's only two living members; guitarist Sterling Morrison and singer Nico are heard from in archival clips. The Velvet Underground burned hot but didn't burn long, and Haynes' film is for those who want to explore the embers of the fire. Casual passersby need not bother. 



'The Velvet Underground'


Rated R: for language, sexual content, nudity and some drug material

Running time: 120 minutes

At the Detroit Film Theatre and on Apple TV+