It’s fitting that in 2021, a time when concertgoing is still somewhat curtailed, and certainly not what it used to be, music documentaries are more popular than ever.
Not only are they popular, but many of them, including Edgar Wright’s “The Sparks Brothers,” Questlove’s “Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” and Alison Ellwood’s “The Go-Go’s,” are excellent.
You can also add Oscar-nominated gay filmmaker Todd Haynes’ “The Velvet Underground” (Apple Original Films), about the band of the same name, to that list. Haynes, who is no stranger to movies to movies about music — ranging from his 1987 short “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” to full-length features such as “Velvet Goldmine” and “I’m Not There,” and an upcoming Peggy Lee biopic — was the right person for this project.
The late pop artist Andy Warhol, who was instrumental in The Velvet Underground’s early days, would have dug what Haynes did with this visually non-traditional doc. Incorporating split-screen, archival footage (some of which were Warhol’s), hallucinogenic images, and more, the movie is a sight to behold.
“The Velvet Underground” opens on an unexpected note, with clips from the popular mid-20th century American panel show “I’ve Got A Secret” on which The Velvet Underground’s multi-instrumentalist John Cale made an appearance. From there we are treated to a series of recent interviews with Cale, VU drummer Maureen (Moe) Tucker, and the late Lou Reed’s sister Merrill, as well as musicians Jonathan Richman and Jackson Browne, actor and Warhol regular Mary Woronov, filmmaker John Waters, gay music influencer Danny Fields, and many others. For those who are no longer with us, including Reed and former original VU member Sterling Morrison, as well as David Bowie and The Factory habitue Billy Name, there are voiceovers.
Like any doc worth its weight in celluloid, “The Velvet Underground” serves up an abundance of background information, going into great detail about each of the four original members, as well as those who joined the band later, including Doug Yule. Additionally, Cale is given the opportunity to delve into his avant-garde influences, as well as how the band arrived at its initial trademark droning musical style.
Queer viewers may be especially interested in the presentation of bisexual front-man Lou Reed’s compelling story. From his parents’ attempts to “shock the gay out of him” via psych hospital “treatments” to his exploration of gay life at the time, including regularly frequenting a gay bar called The Hayloft. Reed’s various means of creative expressions, such as writing poetry “heavy on dark, gay themes” and studying with poet and writer Delmore Schwartz, to forming pre-VU bands, first with school friends and later with Cale, Tony Conrad, and Walter De Maria (known as The Primitives), are also given earned attention.
Additionally, Haynes does an admirable job of capturing the zeitgeist of the 1960s period, in a combination of visual and audio methods. For a band that lasted less than 10 years (not including later reunions), The Velvet Underground remains one of the most influential in modern rock and pop music. With “The Velvet Underground” get the tribute they deserved.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of seven books including the expanded edition of his short story collection How to Whistle (Rattling Good Yarns Press, 2021). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.