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'The Velvet Underground' review: A love letter to the darkest stars of the 1960s

Moe Tucker, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Lou

Moe Tucker, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Lou Reed from archival photography from "The Velvet Underground."  Credit: Apple TV+/Nat Finkelstein

DOCUMENTARY "The Velvet Undergrounf"

WHERE Streaming Friday on Apple TV+ and playing in some Manhattan theaters

WHAT IT’S ABOUT If you’re a music fan, you know The Velvet Underground by name even if they’re not in your vinyl collection. Led by Freeport-raised Lou Reed, they were a band in rebellion against everything, including the rebellion of the 1960s – four black-clad nihilists glowering at the flower-power generation. Though some still call their music depressing, pretentious or even unlistenable, the Velvets set a template for a cool kind of anti-cool that has influenced generations of rockers.

MY SAY There’s a question that dogs this unorthodox documentary from filmmaker Todd Haynes: Who is it for? Much like Haynes’ 1998 fictionalized history of glam, "Velvet Goldmine," this movie is not a straightforward biography. Mixing traditional interviews, staged scenarios, informational detours and evocative visual montages, it’s less about the facts of people’s lives than the power of their ideas. It’ll probably work best for well-informed music fans who happen to have a Velvets-shaped gap in their knowledge -- a niche audience, to be sure.

Long Island plays a familiar role as the utopian suburb that somehow birthed an enfant terrible, in this case Reed. He certainly came by his anger honestly, having been put through electroconvulsive therapy to "cure" his homosexual urges as a young man. Haynes, who is gay, allows Reed’s sister, Merrill, to express empathy for their misguided parents; Reed himself died in 2013. He can be heard in an audio recording echoing many a baby boomer: "I was desperate to get out of that place."

Seeing rock stardom as his escape, Reed formed the Velvet Underground with a group of other outliers: The Welsh composer John Cale (interviewed extensively here), guitarist Sterling Morrison (another Long Islander, from East Meadow) and bare-bones drummer Maureen "Moe" Tucker. Driven by Reed’s bleak lyrics and a sound that could be monotonous, ferocious or both at once, the band defied rock convention and good taste with tracks like "The Black Angel’s Death Song" and "Heroin." A partnership with Andy Warhol, who briefly brought in the actress-singer Nico -- an ethereal beauty with a fascinatingly blank stare – established the Velvets as a unique art-pop hybrid, if not a commercial success.

Haynes connects several interesting dots. Somehow, Cale’s love of the Everly Brothers and Reed’s love of Bo Diddley produced their droning, menacing sound – which in turn became a major influence on the earnest, childlike pop tunes of Jonathan Richman (one of this movie’s most eloquent speakers). Haynes doesn’t bother to identify many of his dots: He assumes you have a working familiarity with cult actress Mary Woronov, film critic Amy Taubin, experimental artist Tony Conrad and so on. One glaring omission is Laurie Anderson, Reed’s third wife and soulmate until his death, though she entered his life well after the Velvets disintegrated.

"The Velvet Underground" eventually drifts toward nostalgia, a sentiment the band probably would have despised, but that’s forgivable. It’s hard to imagine that we’ll see anything like them again. The music impresario Danny Fields, speaking of their live shows in still-awestruck tones, sums it up: "You need physics to describe that band at its height."

BOTTOM LINE A love-letter to the darkest stars of the 1960s.

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