Spiel slowly and see

It's fan service, but if you're a Velvet Underground fan Todd Haynes' doc is OK

For months, like every other Velvet Underground fan on the planet, I had an ear cocked for Todd Haynes’ Velvets documentary. Haynes had a great pedigree for it, as both fan and artist. Far From Heaven showed Haynes could love Douglas Sirk without getting wrapped up in cultish emulation, and Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There suggested he could approach bands he revered on equal footing, as it were, telling his own story through theirs, or at least lining up their obsessions with his.

I should have known better. You’ve heard me talk about how the biopic is an inferior genre; well, its bastard child, the music documentary, is even worse. Almost no one has done what I had hoped Haynes could do. Pennebaker, sure, but that was over 50 years ago and he got to follow Dylan around. Scorsese has a fantastic feel for 60s and 70s music, but his Dylan films are frankly just good fan films — put together with the finesse and invention you’d expect the old Woodstock editor, but they’re not in any sense works of art, they’re commercials for what he loves about Dylan. How would they have been worse if, say, Bryan Singer made them instead of Scorsese? Different rhythms and dynamics, certainly, and maybe less limned with melancholy. But we’re talking about grades of craftsmanship and matters of taste, and, as Stravinsky said, taste is for pederasts. The melancholy limning is just a darker shade of trim.

For 15 or 20 minutes I thought Haynes was going to pull it off. An overture of feedback cutting to young John Cale’s “I’ve Got A Secret” appearance — Cale self-contained, the “Secret” panelists elegant and dismissive — followed by and melting into a blend of early 60s commercial artifacts and European Son; that was promising. And the long takes from the Warhol screen tests of Cale and Reed staring at the camera as we are given their early biographical speeches is a masterstroke, because both their origin stories are about prolonged forced exposure to trauma, and their long gazes help us feel the weight of it.

The 60s commercial ephemera keeps coming, in shock cuts and split screen, as do amphetamine jolts of old New York, rock and roll, stupid hippies, drug stuff art stuff gay stuff etc. These provide counterpoint to and commentary on the story, cleverly and sometimes even powerfully; it’s cool how, when Reed’s high school buddy Allen Hyman talks about him going to Syracuse, among the tumble of frat images we see one of bros smashing up a rival house’s piano, which calls us back to John Cale doing the same thing as a musical épater-performance in New York.

But sooner than later you have to accept that it’s all set dressing for the object of contemplation. Do you love the Velvets? Then bathe in it, friend, this is Velvetsmania, and the quotes are choice and much of the footage is rare. Are you an interested non-fan? Then here are visual cues so you can follow their story and its meaning like it’s a comic book. It’s not that different from Bohemian Rhapsody or The Eddie Duchin Story after all, apart from style.

Since I’m a fan as well as a critic, that’s not so bad. Though much of the story was familiar to me, the new anecdotes perked me up, like Reed’s sister basically telling us not to be too sure we knew the meaning of his shock therapy (boy, there’s a topic for exploration). It’s charming also to see shots of the band loose and friendly — Lou Reed making Mo Tucker laugh; Warhol making Reed laugh (!); Sterling Morrison with his arm around Jonathan Richman, etc.

Some of the stories are familiar but never get old, like the engineer walking out on the recording of “Sister Ray” and saying, “when it’s over, come get me.” But there are also stories that are new to me at least, and surprising: Cher slagging the band in the papers? Fans of the Grateful Dead, per Richman, also going to Velvets shows in Boston? Though I knew he hated the West Coast, Lou Reed thinking the Mothers of Invention were “everything the West Coast was”? Warhol wanted to put Nico in a plexiglass box?

There’s a lot of John Cale, because he survived, and this gives us the biggest surprise: A counterweight to the typical Reed-centric VU vision. You know I love Lou Reed, but if you love the Velvets you have to know they weren’t just Lou’s starter band. Cale, in good color and voice, tells us how he got there, from his youthful epiphany with improvisation to his days in the LaMonte Young tribe where “we tuned to the 60 cycle hum of the refrigerator because 60 cycle hum was to us the drone of Western Civilization,” to his fascination with rock and his stint with Reed’s Primitives (you know, maybe the serious young classical musician who went on “I’ve Got A Secret” was not so averse to the spotlight). “These were really coherent and well-crafted lyrics,” Cale recalls of the songs Reed showed him, “but, I said, wait, the music is not backing up what the music is about…” No slur on Tucker and Morrison, but when I think about those old acoustic sessions on the Peel Slowly box and what they turned into, I think of Cale.

There’s also a lot of Velvet Underground music in it. Which is never a bad thing. One final cavil: Angus MacLise erasure.