Film follows The Velvet Underground’s long journey to hipness

Todd Haynes’ documentary is, surprisingly, the first feature length cinematic examination of the band. It’s screening at the Mill Valley Film Festival at noon on Sunday.

I’m not sure which Velvet Underground LP I bought first — maybe the third one? — but by the time I did, the Velvets (who’d never come within spitting distance of the album charts when they were together) were finally hip, having been endorsed by — among others — David Bowie. Their LPs had been re-pressed in the UK and Europe in the late 1970s (though notably, not yet in the United States), becoming essential components of any self respecting punk rocker’s record collection.

It wasn’t just Bowie, of course: As Brian Eno famously noted, The Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one went out and started a band. Though outsold by The Beatles a hundred to one, the Velvets have since exerted as much influence as the Fabs.

Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground (streaming via AppleTV+ beginning on Friday, Oct. 15, and screening at the Mill Valley Film Festival at noon on Sunday, Oct. 17) is, surprisingly, the first feature length cinematic examination of the band. It’s also Haynes’ first documentary, and his dreamy aesthetic — seen to great effect in films like Far From Heaven (2002) and Velvet Goldmine (2004) — perfectly suits the Underground’s phantasmagoric sounds.

Beginning with John Cale’s memorable 1963 appearance on TV game show I’ve Got a Secret, the two-hour film’s focus is on the classically trained Cale’s relationship with Brooklyn boy Lou Reed, who’d grown up listening to distinctly lowbrow street corner doo wop. While Cale was performing experimental music with Tony Conrad and LaMonte Young (here looking like Santa Claus if Santa were a Hell’s Angel), Reed was employed by Long Island-based budget label Pickwick Records, writing and recording novelty tunes like I’ve Got a Tiger In My Tank.

We also meet the other original members of the band, guitarist Sterling Morrison (a classmate of Reed’s at Syracuse University) and drummer Maureen (Moe) Tucker (a friend of Morrison’s sister) — but not until we’re almost halfway through the film. As important as both were to The Velvet Underground, Haynes is clearly more interested in Cale and Reed’s fractious but creative relationship.

Cale is seen extensively in recent interview footage, while the late Reed is represented by archival recordings and his sister Merrill, who does her best to defend her famously difficult and acerbic sibling, who’d been subjected to electroshock therapy as a teenager. Velvets superfan Jonathan Richman provides valuable context from outside the band, while Warhol superstar Mary Woronov and soft rocker Jackson Browne also offer insight. Yes, the mellow Browne has a connection to the famously noisy Velvet Underground.

Haynes’ interest begins to wane after Cale’s departure following the early 1968 release of second album White Light/White Heat, but we do get a few words from his bass-playing replacement Doug Yule. There’s not a lot said about the Underground’s eponymous third album and nothing at all about their terrific fourth long player Loaded; wisely, Haynes also ignores Squeeze, the terrible final Velvet Underground album recorded after Reed quit, leaving the band with no original members.

Should the film have been longer? VU obsessives will emphatically answer yes, but this is about as good an introduction to the band as one could ask for. And even if you don’t like their music (though I’m convinced there’s a Velvets song for every taste, some may not have the patience to find theirs), you have to admire their transgressive, anti-flower power savoir faire. The Grateful Dead they were not.

John Seal has lived in Oakland since 1981 and has been writing for Berkeleyside since 2009. He spends his spare time watching and reading about movies.