This is an exemplary rock documentary, so well constructed it should appeal to a general audience as well as devotees of the pretentious but brilliant band whose story it chronicles.
Director Todd Haynes (making his first feature documentary) plunges viewers into the seething, contradictory 60s New York cultural world from which The Velvet Underground emerged.
When Welsh working-class classical music prodigy John Cale turned up in the city and came together with the egotistical songwriter, Lou Reed, the band began to fire.
It was a period of radical experimentation among film-makers such as Jonas Mekas and artists such as Andy Warhol, whose Factory was the crucible for many of the oddest and most exciting happenings of the period.
The Velvet Underground story is complicated but Haynes tells it in authoritative and entertaining fashion.
He has gathered together a huge amount of archive material which he blends with present-day interviews. To convey a mass of information in as coherent and accessible a way as possible, he often uses split screen.
The subtitles help, too, not only so you can understand what people are saying when the music ratchets up but also so you can appreciate the lyrical ingenuity of Reed on songs such as “Heroin” and “Sunday Morning”.
Haynes’ admiration for The Velvet Underground is obvious but that doesn’t blunt his critical edge. Reed emerges as a visionary but exasperating and self-obsessed figure, far more preoccupied with being a famous rock star than he let on.
The hangers-on at Warhol’s Factory were narcissistic and sometimes creepy. Film critic Amy Taubin, a regular at the Factory in the late 60s, has some very pointed observations about the shallowness and sexism at Warhol’s avant-garde circus.
Haynes edits the contemporary interviews with old audio clips, as he looks at just how The Velvet Underground came into being. He also deals frankly and perceptively with how and why the band combusted after relations between Reed and Cale broke down.
The film is available online but is surely best seen in as big and cavernous a cinema as possible, with the sound turned up high, so you can get the full echo and menace of the band’s dirge-like, but
utterly mesmeric, music.
In cinemas and on Apple TV+