The Velvet Underground, the subject of Todd Haynes’s namesake documentary, weren’t the strangest ‘60s rock band. The list of contenders for that title is longer than a Ginger Baker drum solo. What the Velvets were was the strangest great rock band.
Leave aside the singularity of the name and being promoted by Andy Warhol (who among other things provided the legendary peel-able banana cover art for the group’s first album). Just consider the musicians. The classically trained John Cale played viola in the band as well as bass. Nico, not so much rock singer as chanteuse (no other word will do), made Marianne Faithfull sound like Janis Joplin. Maureen Tucker played her drums standing up and with mallets instead of sticks. By comparison, Sterling Morrison was quite conventional — except that he has to be the only rock guitarist to get a doctorate in medieval literature and become a tugboat captain. As for Lou Reed, well, he was Lou Reed.
The documentary starts streaming on Apple TV+ Oct. 15, when it also opens at the Kendall Square and West Newton.
What makes a rock band worth attending to a half century after its breakup isn’t its personalities or backstory or context, interesting as those can be, and here they’re all highly interesting. It’s the music. The Velvets recorded “Sweet Jane,” “Rock & Roll,” “Sister Ray,” “Venus in Furs,” “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “White Light/White Heat,” “Heroin,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”
The band was a cultural nexus: drawing on classical music and Minimalism, looking ahead to punk, and very much in the mix at Warhol’s Factory. Haynes, who directed the 2007 Dylan anti-biopic, “I’m Not There,” knows both the music and milieu very well. The documentary excels at situating the band culturally, showing the Velvets’ range of influences (John Cage here, doo-wop there), as well as how wide its own influence became. It’s as much about a place and time, New York in the ‘60s (especially Downtown New York), as it is about the Velvets.
One form this situating takes is the rather stupendous array of film clips and photographs Haynes has assembled. They range from concert performances to Warhol’s “Screen Tests” series to Cale appearing on the game show “I’ve Got a Secret” playing some Erik Satie. (I can wait if you need to reread that last bit.)
Stupendous is not an exaggeration. Much of the film is presented in split screen, which means multiple images are presented simultaneously. It also means that seeing the documentary in a theater would make the viewing experience even more preferable to streaming than usual.
The split screen serves a dual purpose. It allows Haynes to cram in that much more information into each shot; and the image onrush that results makes for a very energetic film. The Factory was amphetamine central, and Reed’s heavy indulgence would help break up the band. There’s a comparable high-octane quality to the documentary.
Along with the archival footage, there are talking-head interviews with the likes of Warhol “superstar” Mary Woronov; Reed’s sister (who does a nifty version of The Ostrich, a dance inspired by a small hit from the Primitives, a Velvets’ forerunner); and the classical composer La Monte Young. The singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman, of Modern Lovers fame, speaks fervently of the band. Still in his teens, he opened for them once and claims to have heard them in concert “60-70 times,” often at the Boston Tea Party.
The most important interviewees are the two surviving original band members: Cale, whose Welsh intonations are a pleasure to listen to, and Tucker, whose granny fierceness in front of the camera now is a match for her gamine fierceness behind a drum kit then. “This love, peace crap,” she says, “we hated that. Get real.” There you have, still, the sense of menace in the band’s attitude. It wasn’t just in songs like “Heroin” or “White Light/White Heat.” No wonder that Cher — yes, that Cher — said of the band at its height, “It will replace nothing except suicide.”
Warhol haunts the film. Almost 35 years after his death, what doesn’t he haunt in this culture? More directly, so does Reed, who’s often heard in archival audio interviews. His voice is as distinctive as Cale’s, though with a snarliness that isn’t a comparable pleasure to listen to. That’s all right, though. Without the snarl, the songs wouldn’t be a pleasure to listen to — even if pleasure isn’t necessarily quite the right word.
THE VELVET UNDERGROUND
Directed by Todd Haynes. At Kendall Square, West Newton, and streaming on Apple TV+. 121 minutes. R (language, sexual content, nudity, some drug material).
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.