For the first half of this film, the Velvet Underground are reduced to two people – Lou Reed, the accountant’s son from New York, and John Cale, the miner’s son from Wales. They both make their way through the avant garde world – Reed as a writer, Cale as a viola player (when he did his auditions, there weren’t any violins available). In case you think that “avant garde” is the French for talentless bullshit, Cale actually won some proper scholarships.
Reed had by far the more secure (let’s say bourgeois) upbringing. His father was a bit scared that he might be gay, and probably had hopes that he’d inherit the family business, but Lou seems to have been indulged. Cale’s Welsh nationalist grandmoiher on the other hand, refused to have English spoken in her house which meant that he was unable to communicate with his English father until he was 6 or 7.
Meanwhile, the two were growing up on different sides of the Atlantic in the 1960s. Reed wrote a song when he was 14, which received radio play that earned him $2.87. He jokes that this was more money than he ever earned from the Velvet Underground. He also enrolled at English Language Courses at various New York Universities and got his poems published in the alternative press.
Cale, meanwhile, became an enfant terrible on the avant garde music scene. He worshipped John Cage, was taught by La Monte Young and moved into a flat in New York inhabited by various members of the alternative scene. Cue scenes of him playing a piano with the help of nothing more than an axe.
This concentration on Reed and Cale unfairly diminishes the contributions of drummer Maureen Tucker and guitarist Sterling Morrison (not to mention occasional singer Nico). Early versions of Reed and Cale playing “Waiting for My Man” contain the essence of the great track that would emerge, but come across as being somehow weedy. It’s only when the full band perform it that the track reaches its full potential.
This is a criticism of The Velvet Underground, the film, but it isn’t the criticism. This is too much of an Art Film. Most of it is shot in split screen, but for no apparent reason. Much of the film appears to be drawing undue attention to itself, to the detriment of the musicians that is supposed to be depicting. Little surprize here – this is a Todd Haynes film after all.
Haynes also seems in awe of the idea of Andy Warhol, without explaining what his contribution actually was, or whether his pictures and films were Any Good (I’m not convinced). The best that the film can come up with is Reed’s comment that when Warhol was in the studio, no-one else dared to enter, which led the band to get on with just making the record.
There are all sort of questions which seem to be beyond this film’s remit. Cale mentions is passing that Warhol’s vision of the band was “all commerce”, but how did this affect the working class kid who has elsewhere been proud of his socialism? (Cale’s autobiography “What’s Welsh for Zen” is a joy to read). Like many other potentially interesting issues, this is just not pursued.
Similarly with Reed, who is occasionally euphemistically referred to as being “difficult to work with”. By all accounts, he was much more problematic than this. And yet this is too much of a hagiography to directly admit that any of its stars could be anything less than perfect. This means that potentially interesting tensions are largely left unexplored.
For all this, the music is just too marvellous to make this film in any sense missable. The Velvet Underground produced music which is incomparable with just about anything from any other era. In this sense, the expectations of the songs that we will here makes the film essential viewing. Sure, it is ham fisted in the way that it deals with its characters, but it still has Black Angel’s Death Song.
It is a shame that there just wasn’t enough archive footage taken in the 1960s, which means we get to see very few videos of the band in action. It’s a double shame as the really compelling part of the film is not the artistic posing but just the ability to sit back and listen to and watch truly groundbreaking music. For this reason, the film is compelling, though you may get the same effect by digging out the old albums.