Danger for Sale: A few things to look for while watching Todd Haynes’ ‘The Velvet Underground’

Todd Haynes doesn’t want us to forget about the Velvet Underground. That long-gone rock band is one of the filmmaker’s musical Pick Hits, alongside former Haynes biopic subjects Bob Dylan, Stephen Sondheim, Sonic Youth, David Bowie and Karen Carpenter. Haynes’ latest film, The Velvet Underground, rates special handling because the Velvets were simultaneously more dangerous and more attractive than the rest. The new film is a hypnotic, kaleidoscopic, split-screen, rapid-montage, black-and-white documentary exercise in disorienting adulation, so thick with allusions that it would take a list to piece together the splintered impressions.

And so, here are a few things that occurred to us while watching The Velvet Underground

  1. Was Lou Reed gay, bi or just curious? – Does it matter? In the film, Reed recalls playing a gig at a gay club with one of his first bands. To him, the audience was “a cool group of people.” Evidently his suburban Long Island parents were worried enough about his emotional state that he was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy. So there’s that. But having something in common with Judy Garland and Frances Farmer doesn’t automatically make someone LGBTQ.
  2. The Velvets’ drone – Band member John Cale, a Welsh cellist/multi-instrumentalist influenced by the avant-garde music of John Cage and La Monte Young—Young appears as a talking head—helped Reed develop the “60dB hum” and drone that gave the early Velvets their unmistakable flavor. The drone drove squares and old-school musical pros to distraction in equal measure. On the band’s second album, White Light/White Heat, one of the engineers pressed the Record button and then left the booth, saying “I don’t have to listen to this!”
  3. Andy Warhol – The band’s omnisexual, leather-and-whips image and its early-period impenetrable neo-noise sound appealed to the pop artist, who lent them a trendy New York scene-making cachet that had little to do with Reed’s musical ideas. But Warhol always drew a crowd. His “pink banana” peel-away art on the Velvets’ first-album jacket didn’t affect record sales one way or the other. According to drummer Maureen “Moe” Tucker, “Radio stations wouldn’t play us.” Reed’s lasting impression of Warhol: “It was all about work.”
  4. Nico – Pushed into the band by Warhol as a glamorous Teutonic Titwillow with “pitchless vocals,” the ur-blonde singer received almost no respect as a musical entity. But Warhol and Factory-hand Billy Name thought the Velvets needed her in a promotional way, to front the group. She grew on them but left not long after the debut album.
  5. The Velvets and women – Onscreen, film critic Amy Taubin declares that being in the Velvets’ thrall “was not a good place for women,” despite the presence of Moe and Nico. The idea that Warhol and the band valued women only for their looks is probably inescapable. Sexual politics didn’t appear to interest Reed very much. After the band broke up, Moe became a factory worker.
  6. Jonathan Richman – Perhaps the Velvets’ biggest fan. Cale produced Richman’s first record, after the Massachusetts Modern Lover had seen the band “60 or 70 times.” Richman’s astute musical observation: “You could watch them play, and there would be overtones you couldn’t account for.”
  7. California kvetchin’ – No love was lost between the Velvets and the locals on the group’s first West Coast tour. People in L.A. were too healthy for the New Yorkers, who had no use for all this “peace and love” shit. The Velvets shared a bill with the Mothers of Invention—“We despised them,” says Moe. At the Fillmore West, Bill Graham told them: “I hope you fuckers bomb.” Asked her opinion of their music, Cher grumbled, “It will replace nothing except suicide.” 
  8. Random quotes – Reed: “People thought [Warhol] was the lead guitarist. Our great shepherd.” Nico on the group’s sound: “The kind of music that you hear when there’s a storm outside.” Anonymous insider: “You need physics to describe that band at its height.”

Amen. 

In theaters and on Apple TV+, Oct. 15.
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