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The Velvet Underground review – celebratory doc could have gone deeper

Todd Haynes is back with a provocative and interesting but lop-sided documentary about one of the Sixties' most enigmatic bands

One of the many fascinating things about The Velvet Underground is that most of its hugely skilled members did their best work away from the band. With the David Bowie-produced album Transformer, Lou Reed instantly became the kind of sensation he always wanted to be. With Paris 1919 (and in particular the spectacular ballad “Andalucia”), John Cale reached the height of his talent.

It’s also true of Andy Warhol and Nico, two honorary Velvet Underground members who were crucial to the band’s seminal first album, 1967’s The Velvet Underground and Nico, referred to in Todd Haynes’ new documentary (and in the public consciousness, mostly) as “the banana record.” Warhol moved on to form Interview magazine and Nico started writing for herself, enlisting Cale and Reed to help.

This is not to argue the Velvet Underground were a failure. They became one of the most influential and beloved pop-rock acts of the 1960s, a competitive decade to achieve that in. What it does mean is that the Velvet Underground moment failed: the complex politics of the band, Lou Reed’s domineering personality, Cale’s head-in-the-sky hippiness. It all ended far too soon. Cale was out by September 1968; within five years the band ceased to exist.

Haynes’ documentary, then, is a little too celebratory of The Velvet Underground as a band, rather than a quite bizarre grouping of inspired talents who largely took their trade elsewhere, and thrived for it. Devotees to the group will certainly enjoy a positive and long-awaited look back at how much fun they all had. And there's trivia aplenty about all the band’s biggest hits, most iconic appearances, and best-remembered looks.

But for such an accomplished director (he of I'm Not There, Carol and Dark Waters), The Velvet Underground keeps a disappointingly light touch on a band who were anything but. And it doesn’t go very deep into the band’s living members, particularly Cale, who seems a nice chap but is described quite bracingly by some of his peers.

Meanwhile, drummer Moe Tucker slams the West Coast-centric counterculture of the Sixties in a funny way, insisting the Velvet Underground had nothing to do with it. But coming from an outspoken conservative who doesn’t seem willing to accept the Velvet Underground were the counterculture, there seems to be some selective memory at play. Even poor Lou Reed is challenged for complaining about the electric shock therapy he was put through as a child, with sister Merrill insisting it had nothing to do with his budding homosexuality.

All that is unfortunate, because Haynes is exactly the right person to recast the Velvet Underground as a musically and sexually transgressive band, the kind of band they’ve been considered by music critics and fellow musicians since shortly after their break-up. Yet the living members’ apparent unwillingness to perceive themselves as part of a long history of rock music and youth rebellion is unfortunate. It forces The Velvet Underground to sound like more of a success story than it ought to. For good reason, the music was never like that.

The Velvet Underground is in UK cinemas and streaming on Apple TV+ from 15 October.

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