More than a half century after the Velvet Underground’s obscure rise and spectacular implosion, one of the most storied American bands of the nineteen-sixties finally has a proper documentary. Although the film was long in its coming, the exciting trailer, released in August, and the awareness that the film was directed by Todd Haynes, the virtuoso behind two powerful, quixotic rock-and-roll movies—“Velvet Goldmine” (1998) and “I’m Not There” (2007)—suggested that the half-century-plus wait may have been worthwhile.
The film’s late arrival does create some unusual narrative challenges. Four of the band’s principals—Lou Reed (guitar/vocals), Sterling Morrison (guitar), Nico (vocals), and Andy Warhol (impresario/genius)—died before the documentary was made. The only founding members with onscreen interviews are John Cale (bass/viola/keyboards) and Maureen (Moe) Tucker (drums). Given that Reed threw Cale out of the band, in September, 1968, after the first two Velvet Underground records, Cale’s prominent talking head might seem to threaten the film’s objectivity. But Cale gives every impression of being an evenhanded, terrific storyteller and historian. Reed is also present, albeit in archival voice-over, to give his side of the story.