The record will show that 2021 was an especially illustrious and adventurous moment for the music doc, as name directors of a certain age leveraged their platform to pay homage to the prolific, sometimes tricky outsider artistes who sustained them from a formative age. We've already seen Alex Winter's comprehensive-bordering-on-exhaustive picture of Frank Zappa's wayward genius (Zappa), and Edgar Wright's lengthy fan letter to all things Mael (The Sparks Brothers); occupying the void between those and Peter Jackson's upcoming, doubtless entirely accessible series on the Beatles' final moments together (The Beatles: Get Back, arriving via Disney+ on November 25), we have The Velvet Underground, Todd Haynes' Apple-sponsored tribute to New York's pre-eminent subterranean lurkers. To document the Velvets - the militant wing of the musical counterculture, led by unsmiling perfectionist-general Lou Reed and his strategist-in-chief John Cale - is also to document a moment of extreme social and cultural turbulence, when pop was placed in forceful yet only briefly lasting contact with the worlds of film, art and literature, not to mention revolutionary politics; it demands a sense of movements running in parallel, observed out of the corner of an eye. Haynes, who rewrote the history of glam rock with 1998's Velvet Goldmine before proving alert indeed to the nuances of American society in his mature-phase masterpieces Far from Heaven and Carol, turns out to be just the man for whom this band had been waiting. From the off, he makes a big, bold choice - split screen - which not only feels instinctively right for a story this fractious but keeps paying off both visually and editorially, juxtaposing images, scenes and people in a manner more reminiscent of gallery art than the Friday night slot on BBC4.
As an organising principle, split screen permits Haynes to bring together and play off contrasting personalities, dissonant sounds and ideas. He can set the malcontent snarl of bored suburban punk Reed against mellifluous, classically educated testimony from (the still extant) Welshman Cale, and numb Warholian portraiture against more frenetic archive; he pits stills versus Super 8, and at one point even makes passing mischief throwing the no-fun bluntness of the East Coast crowd up against the hazier, free-love vibes coming from out West. For this filmmaker, the counterculture isn't one thing, but many things simultaneously: intersectional (as we'd now call it) but also inherently oppositional, like weather fronts colliding - sometimes a genial happening, to use that quaint Sixties term, sometimes a noisy clash. This is the climate Reed's faction thrived in, and Haynes grasps that elements of this story are tempestuous, unpretty, difficult if not impossible to smooth over. The music, for one, which even temporary frontwoman Nico is heard describing as "that noise you hear when there's a storm outside". Reed is confirmed as no great bundle of laughs, needy, demanding-slash-abusive, and brutally summed up by Allan Hyman, a bandmate in the aptly named teen beat combo The Primitives, as "like a three-year-old". (As revisited here, the group's big novelty hit "The Ostrich" sounds newly relentless, even punishing: a Spector-aping riff pushed towards a repetitious extreme by young thugs wielding guitars like weapons, writing a manifesto for metal machine music to come.)
Yet the film is adult enough to set this behaviour - and Reed's stormcloud demeanour - in context, and proves willing to make a case for an art that is difficult and complex, that exists as a result of disparate influences and contradictory impulses. The presence of Amy Taubin and the late Jonas Mekas among the interviewees underlines the importance of having a critical class who are equipped to commentate on such art - who are prepared to get down and dirty with the work under analysis, rather than setting out on some lofty quest for artistic purity. The film adheres to this (recognisably New York) tradition: it's an attempt to figure out this most perverse of back catalogues and - without compromising its woozy, nocturnal mysteries or outsider status - open it up to wider scrutiny. Even if you're no particular fan of the music, with its wild, narcotically enhanced internal mood swings - and at this point, your correspondent must raise a sheepish hand - The Velvet Underground is a hell of a document to look at and listen to, skilfully shuffling clips from the exploding New York demi-monde of Warhol, Jack Smith and Barbara Rubin with the era's thoroughly stolid mainstream music and television formats, the better to highlight just what Reed and Cale were bristling against. (Cherish the condescension of the TV continuity announcer who introduces/damns Nico thus: "Her voice is, um, unusual.")
It's not devoid of that indulgence that factored into the counterculture, and which has returned to dog the progress of name directors moving into the streaming-TV arena. As with the other music docs of this moment, it's arguably a reel too long to be truly essential, and Reed's nihilism - his readiness to walk away from anything and everything - does rather leave the third act as something of a dead end. (If this group stand more or less alone in rock history, it's surely in part because no-one else thought this was any way to sustain a music career.) Yet this story tells us that interesting, eye-and-earcatching things sometimes shoot up in dead ends, and that blind alleys may in fact be exactly the right place to start making a noise such as this. Thirty years of leftfield endeavour has given Haynes has an assured sense of how to inhabit and fill these fringes, and his juxtaposition tactic leaves us not passively revisiting the songs of a director's youth, but making active connections between the film's disparate sources and periods. Could there not be some essential link between the electricity Reed's parents used in a bid to shock the gay out of their son and the La Monte Young-inspired drone his band went on to make on stage and record? "Venus in Furs" and certain lines and images in "I'm Waiting for the Man" (as close as this group got to a pop hit) only amplify this music's essential queerness, its creator's determination to self-identify as an unapologetic freak. Haynes is old and wise enough to recognise this quest wasn't always so heroic or even especially ingratiating, but The Velvet Underground does finally get why this music remains compelling: it was Reed's defiant, unyielding stance, maintained in the face of his parents, non-hip society and any other mook within earshot. I am not such as you; now leave me the fuck alone.
The Velvet Underground is now showing at the Curzon Bloomsbury and the ICA Cinema, and streaming via Apple TV+.