It was a remarkable time, but not exactly a golden age. Haynes respects the art too much to idealize the artists, or to impose retrospective harmony on their dissonances. The overt cruelty and menace of the music — the droning and distortion behind lyrics about addiction, sadism and sexual exploitation — didn’t come from nowhere.
The film critic Amy Taubin, who appeared in a Warhol film about “the most beautiful women in the world,” bluntly recalls that the Factory, Warhol’s headquarters, was a bad place for women, who were valued for their looks rather than their talents. An aspect of Warhol’s genius was a gift for using people, and often using them up. Reed, who died in 2013, is a posthumously beloved figure, but not many of his contemporaries would describe him as a nice person.
And niceness was, in any case, antithetical to what the Velvet Underground was trying to do. “We hated that peace and love crap,” Tucker says. The artist Mary Woronov, who toured with the Velvets on the West Coast, elaborates on their hostility to the California counterculture: “We hated hippies.” Never a political band, it nonetheless articulated a powerful protest — against sentimentality, stupidity, false consciousness and positive thinking — that would sow the seeds of punk rock and later rebellions. Testimony to their influence is provided by the singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman, who estimates he saw them live 60 or 70 times when he was a teenager in Boston, and whose enthusiasm is undimmed more than half a century later.
Drop a needle on any Velvet Underground record — or queue up a playlist, if that’s how you roll — and what you hear will sound new, frightening and full of possibility, even on the thousandth listen. “The Velvet Underground” will show you where that perpetual novelty came from, and connect the sonic dots with other, contemporaneous artistic eruptions. As a documentary, it’s wonderfully informative. It’s also a jagged and powerful work of art in its own right, one that turns archaeology into prophecy.
The Velvet Underground
Rated R. “Heroin,” “Venus in Furs,” “Sister Ray” — you do the math. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes. In theaters and on Apple TV+.