Review of Todd Haynes's documentary "The Velvet Underground"

"Nice hat, faggot!" Thus was I addressed by a muscle-bound member of a passing posse of suburban "toxic masculinity" as Caroline and I munched our pizza at a table outside of Spunto, shortly before heading round the corner to Film Forum for the 7:50pm screening of Todd Haynes's superb new doc. "The Velvet Underground". An appropriate enough remark maybe, in context—considering the general disapprobation the band engendered from straights in their hey-day (check the quotes on the inside of the "Banana" album). But this is the WEST VILLAGE after all, fer chrissakes, and...oh yeah, it's also the Weekend, when all sorts of cretins come in from the boroughs and Jersey to run amuck. (Said gay-baiting remark did also make me start to rethink my previous support for Dave Chappelle, I gotta admit. But I digress...). Anyway, it's a really good documentary, much better than I expected. A real labor of love many years in the making, with appropriate attention paid to the mid-60's art and cultural swirl around the formation of the band. Couple things bothered me though. Frank Zappa, who had a well-known longtime antipathy to the Velvets and vice versa (kind of papered over years later by Lou's somewhat disingenuous eulogy of Frank / rewrite of history at the 1995 Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame's induction of the late Mother: "I admired Frank greatly and I know he admired me"—Death being a great opportunity to kiss and make up) is here in this doc. via some slick editing of comments and imagery made to personify "hippie culture"; ie., the dreaded "Flower Power"—when nothing could be further from the truth. That guy was anti-hippie and pro-freak from the get-go, and made a fine distinction about the difference 'tween the two. It doesn't stop there: Cale in his interview goes out of his way to blame Frank and other unnamed "West Coast forces" for the delay of the release of the Banana album by Verve in order to jump-start and favor The Mothers "Freak-Out" release, when actually there were a host of other problems (fr'instance, Eric Emerson's lawsuit against Verve for using his unauthorized photo on the jacket sleeve, also production snafus with Andy's peel-able banana image on the front cover). The other thing that bugged me was the seemingly purposeful occlusion of the significant contributions of Doug Yule (who you may remember Lou introduced on the first live double Velvets album on Mercury as "my brother Doug")—right down to the use of a truly murky photo of him in the final credit roll. My quibbles aside (to quote Richard Meltzer: "Nothing is ever better than 'pretty good'"), this doc. is a remarkable achievement, and the comments of the film's two editors, Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz, at the sold-out Film Forum screening were worth the aggravation encountered on the way over there.

—Gary Lucas