The documentary The Velvet Underground was made under Todd Haynes’s presumption that the counterculture still matters. Haynes, who directed the gender-studies films Poison, Safe, Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There, and Carol, looks back at the Sixties art-rock cult band to sanctify the history of transgressive ingenuity — suggesting that VU’s musical glamorization of drugs, homosexuality, and the bedraggled demimonde formed the basis of today’s culture. This dubious proposition showed at the New York Film Festival and now plays at Film Forum.
Haynes’s biopic ignores that the counterculture no longer exists as such. He sees VU’s co-founders, Welsh immigrant instrumentalist John Cale and New York bad-boy lyricist and guitarist Lou Reed, plus the other band members — Maureen Tucker (drums), Sterling Morrison (bass), and erstwhile German female vocalist Nico — as roguish role models for today’s media class. Through this approach, Cale, the intellectual, Reed, the American upstart, and Nico, the exotic icy blonde boho hobo become celebrities as much as pioneers.
Starting with the aggressive, unnerving guitar screech of VU’s S & M tease “Venus in Furs,” Haynes sides with the agit-prop annoyance of Sixties outsiders, middle-class rebels who found their haven in the margins of pop-music variety. He copies Andy Warhol’s split-screen Chelsea Girls — a stylistic jest imitating a cultural breakthrough. Warhol sponsored VU’s initial minority success, making their major-label record deal possible, fixing their art-world status and eventual legend.
Haynes enshrines the Millennial progressive pretense that the Sixties never ended. Keeping to the wrong side of moral and aesthetic history, he “documents” the era through a jumble of art affectations — FX that bleed across the screen, Warhol excerpts, art-critic interludes (including Amy Taubin’s souvenir Warhol cameo), and a final montage of stills that look like LP covers. It’s an attempt to sustain the idea of cultural revolution but from a fin de siècle indie-filmmaking perspective, proof that contemporary politics and pop art are unoriginal.
Because Haynes lacks an artist’s sensitivity and insight, he competes with Warhol’s cultural experiments. Using academic stealth, he plagiarizes VU’s audacity and then combines impudence with Frankfurt School precepts (the roots of today’s radical postures, now vulgarized as critical race theory). This results in Haynes’s misreading pop history and Western enlightenment. When Cale, one of the band’s two surviving original members, tells Haynes, “The only way we could give Bob Dylan a run for his money was by improvising [in live performance],” it’s the only moment that actually deals with the substance of VU’s art and career.
Haynes is an effete pop-nerd who imitates pop-culture precedents. As in his disastrous 1998 Velvet Goldmine (a queer-baiting melodrama using much of the same material here), he distorts the history of both Sixties cinema and Seventies art-rock.
The Velvet Underground phases into hagiography, not a sharp way for an intellectual to shape a project. Haynes gets so lost in his preening art gestures that there’s no practical information about contracts or record-company business, just the useless glorification of pop-art myths. (It might have been interesting to see Haynes contrast VU with Billie Eilish or Cardi B.) Despite his praise and industry influence, Haynes has never made a movie the public can enjoy. Incapable of pop amusement, he’s a zeitgeist pseud — the Ivy League Spike Lee. (Black people serve as Reed’s phantom fetishes in this civil-rights-era reminiscence while Taubin only critiques the scene’s sexual chauvinism.)
Liberals hold to a fantasy of bold oppositional attitudes, so Haynes celebrates VU’s dubious revolution. The Velvet Underground indicates that what Bob Dole later called “the culture of depravity” has won. When Warhol actress Mary Woronov talks of “where the artist comes in, because he’s not with society, he’s different,” she recalls a different world from today. Yet Haynes ignores the fact that, 50 years on, and many pop evolutions after VU infected the culture, Millennial pop today tends toward compliance, conformity, and elitism. All those negatives that now accrue to VU’s legacy describe why Haynes’ tribute fails.