To the question of the most influential band formed in the 1960s a list of easy answers unfolds, beginning with the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones. As three of the makers of the best-selling records of all time, those bands all lay fair claim to the title. But even within the commercial dynamo of postwar America, it was also possible to exert great influence without topping the charts, or indeed without even reaching them. This is proven by the story of avant-garde rockers the Velvet Underground, whose meager success in their day as compared with their formidable cultural legacy inspired Brian Eno to sum them up with a quip now so well-known as to have become a cliché.
But not even a mind like Eno’s can truly sum up the Velvet Underground. Better to tell the band’s story — the story, in its way, of art and popular culture in mid-to-late 20th-century America — in a feature-length documentary, as Todd Haynes has done with The Velvet Underground, which premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and debuts on AppleTV+ on October 15th.
“Haynes appears to have vacuumed up every last photograph and raw scrap of home-movie and archival footage of the band that exists and stitched it all into a coruscating document that feels like a time-machine kaleidoscope,” writes Variety critic Owen Gleiberman. He introduces the Velvets and their associates “by playing their words off the flickering black-and-white images of their Warhol screen tests.”
The Velvets were, in a sense, a product of Warhol’s Factory. The pop-art icon managed the band himself early on, connecting them with the singer who would become the second titular figure on their debut The Velvet Underground & Nico and designing that album’s oft-visually-referenced banana-sticker cover. Having died in 1987, Warhol couldn’t grant Haynes an interview; having followed Warhol the next year, neither could Nico. Band leader Lou Reed, too, has now been gone for the better part of a decade, but he does have plenty to say in the 1986 South Bank Show documentary above. Haynes’ The Velvet Underground includes Reed in archival footage, but also features new reminiscences from surviving members like Maureen Tucker and John Cale. Like all human beings, the Velvets are mortal; but their expansion of rock’s sonic possibilities will outlast us all.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.