The Rock Band That Redefined Counterculture

Todd Haynes’s documentary about the Velvet Underground spotlights how sound can challenge—and change—society.

Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, and Moe Tucker from archival photography in a split-screen frame from “The Velvet Underground”
Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, and Moe Tucker from archival photography in a split-screen frame from “The Velvet Underground” (Apple TV+)

Part of the backlash now facing Baby Boomers—seen in all those memes and essays blaming grandma for the state of capitalism—may simply stem from overexposure. The flower children’s children grew up in a world in which their elders’ revolutionary artworks had become wallpaper, trinkets, and ad fodder. Everyone who wasn’t at Woodstock is all too aware that they’ll never go to Woodstock.

The Velvet Underground has not entirely escaped aging into banality: Replications of the Andy Warhol image of a banana that graced the group’s debut album now grace junk at the mall. But the most obscure band to ever be called “iconic” still has a claim to coolness. Wearing black and looking jaded never seems to go out of style—and you can hear echoes of the Velvet Underground’s hazy, lurid songs when exploring rebellious music scenes today.

To understand the nature of the band’s endurance, and the nature of niche cool in any era, turn to Todd Haynes’s bewitching new documentary, The Velvet Underground, out now on Apple TV+. The seemingly straightforward title is a feint: While the group took its name from a 1963 book on sexual fetishes, the documentary subtly suggests that velvet underground could refer to a particular type of subculture—one in which the lowbrow and the highbrow, the outsider and the careerist, the hater and the pleaser, challenge society in a manner that succeeds in changing it.

Haynes’s movies to date, including the queer costume drama Carol and the Bob Dylan non-biopic I’m Not There, have elegantly bridged entertainment and experimentation, and The Velvet Underground does that too. Told largely with archival footage presented in split-screen, it is a swirling, 110-minute collage with a consistent, humming rhythm. Interviews serve more as texture than as narration, so that, as Haynes told Rolling Stone, “the music and the images lead us, not the words.”

After opening with squalling distortion set to a black screen, Haynes zaps far away from rock and roll to a peppy 1963 game show featuring the future Velvet Underground member John Cale. The show was called I’ve Got a Secret, and Cale’s secret, he tells some perplexed-looking contestants, was that he once performed a piano piece for more than 18 hours. This footage makes culture clash and generational change feel visceral: Cale, who fled a dreary Welsh upbringing via the New York avant-garde classical scene, twisted against postwar mass conformity. So did everyone he would run with.

As the game-show segment plays, Haynes intercuts video of Lou Reed, Velvet Underground’s singer, staring into a camera. The documentary seems to ask, might Reed himself have caught Cale’s provocation on TV? Perhaps, between visits to gay bars and heroin dealers. Reed was tormented by his sexuality, his addictions, his psychology, and his society—but Haynes emphasizes how, beneath it all, ambition burned. In contrast to Cale’s fascination with experimental music, the young Reed survived suburbia by latching on to commercial pop and rock. The documentary goes on to suggest that he helped form, lead, and eventually destroy the Velvet Underground out of a desire for stardom.

Reed died in 2013 and hated giving interviews, so The Velvet Underground treats him as an ornery cypher while the 79-year-old Cale dispenses recollections in a majestic accent. It takes more than 40 minutes—spent lavishly painting the artistic landscape of the early-to-mid-’60s—before Haynes even gets to the aha moment that happened when the two men linked up in 1964. As Cale and Reed jammed, Cale noted that traditional rock or pop didn’t suit Reed’s lyrics about deadly drugs, rough sex, and the psychology of marginalization. They’d need something wild, noisy, and dreamlike.

The resulting music intrigued Andy Warhol, that broker between art, commerce, bohemia, and high society. The Velvets became the house band at his Factory, and Cale and Reed both have said they were inspired by, of all things, the work ethic on display there. Warhol and the band—which by that point included Sterling Morrison and the drummer Maureen Tucker—also shared aesthetic kinks: deadpan, repetition, and slowness. The 1967 debut album that emerged from their collaboration was a work of extremity and confrontation, but it was also shaped by calculated marketing. The German actress and model Nico had joined the band because, as the photographer Billy Name recounts a Warhol adviser saying, “you gotta have a beautiful girl.”

That bid didn’t pay off exactly as hoped—Reed is quoted saying he was surprised that his songs didn’t bowl over New York immediately—but it did build a fandom over years of poorly attended, yet reportedly incantatory, gigs. The movie lingers on the Velvet Underground’s first visit to the West Coast, where the Haight Ashbury free-love scene—with its sunny pop sound—was booming. Audiences and bookers sneered at the morose Velvets, and the Velvets sneered back. “We hated hippies,” Mary Woronov, a Warhol associate who traveled with the band, says with a squint of pure disgust. “I mean, flower power, y’know? Burning bras? What the fuck is wrong with you?”

The tension between the Velvet Underground and the hippies is instructive, and Haynes lingers on it. Bra-burners were “the counterculture”—so what’s counter to the counterculture? When Tucker, the drummer, explains anti-hippiedom in political terms—rather than putting flowers in their hair, those kids should have been “helping homeless people” or “something”—it’s unpersuasive given that the Velvets weren’t known as big activists themselves. The real source of the divide was aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual. Cale condemns the West Coast crowd’s disinterest in “danger.” In response to the world’s injustices, Woronov says, the artist’s role is to “become strong and … become anti- a lot of things.”

The positivity of negativity—perhaps that’s what the Velvets and their influence reduce to. After all, what is “Heroin” but a love song to oblivion? In some of the most stunning passages of The Velvet Underground, Haynes demonstrates how the droning noises that Cale loved simulate a feeling of eternal slumber. Reed’s lyrics were often criticized for glorifying or exoticizing risky behavior, but he insisted that they were investigations into the nature of pain and alienation. Artists labeled as punk, as metal, as indie, or as any number of other things would later, knowingly or not, walk the same catacombs first explored by the Velvet Underground.

Yet Haynes seems a little suspicious of the other part of the band’s appeal: Reed’s pop genius. The singer fired Cale after two albums, and Haynes speeds through what happened afterward—even though the next two albums, recorded with the multi-instrumentalist Doug Yule, contain many classic tracks. The quartet wore floral prints and started seeming less like a brood of necromancers than “a regular rock-and-roll band [with] a brilliant creative person totally in charge,” as Joseph Freeman, a former assistant for Warhol, puts it. The documentary ends in a mood of elegy, with capsule bios of people, both living and dead, in the Underground’s orbit.

In an interview with The Guardian, Haynes argued that a “spirit of revolt” and a resistance to “systems of marketing and power” have been lost since the ’60s. Yet to watch his movie is to see how much the Underground—with Reed’s steady questing for a hit, and with Warhol’s celebrity penumbra—was in conversation with systems of marketing and power. For all its petulance, the band wanted influence, and over time, it got it: The trappings of Velvet-style disaffection have become a consumerist aesthetic. But every year, new musicians show that some fundamental resources—noise, stupor, antipathy, and outsiderness—can’t ever be fully hijacked, and won’t lose their potency. “I’ve been set free and I’ve been bound,” Reed once sang, knowing that art can make both of those things happen at once.