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Velvet Underground documentary gets to the heart of the band's radical magic

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEROIN")

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND: (Singing) I don't know just where I'm going, but I'm gonna try for the kingdom, if I can, 'cause it makes me feel like I'm a man when I put a spike into my vein. And I'll tell ya, things aren't quite the same when I'm rushing on my run, and I feel just like Jesus' son. And I guess that I just don't know. And I guess that I just don't know.

GROSS: That's Lou Reed's song "Heroin" from the 1967 album "The Velvet Underground & Nico." There's a new documentary about the band called "The Velvet Underground," which is now showing in theaters and on Apple TV+. Our critic at large, John Powers, says that Todd Haynes' film captures what made the group so momentous.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: A few days after I arrived in Los Angeles, an ultra-hip music critic at my newspaper asked me what '60s bands I liked growing up. When I told him the Velvet Underground, he gave a derisive laugh. Everybody says that now. He was right. In their day, the Velvets were largely arcane taste, without a single hit song. It took the passing years to make their reputation and prove their influence. Half a century on, the band feels more relevantly alive than nearly all of its better-known contemporaries. Its songs still have the power to get under your skin.

You see why in the new documentary, "The Velvet Underground." Made by exactly the right filmmaker, Todd Haynes, this inventive, immersive movie takes you to the heart of the band's radical black hole magic. At the Velvet's core were two brilliant outsiders - Lou Reed, a spiky, ambitious child of the Long Island suburbs, and John Cale, a viola-playing devotee of avant-garde music who escaped his dreary childhood in Welsh coal mining country. The two met in 1964 New York, and their sensibilities sparked. Once they added guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker - having a woman drummer was characteristically groundbreaking - they began creating music like no other. Theirs was an invasive, often mysterious sound, with throbbing rhythms, slashing strings and Reed's flat voice singing of hooky, stinging lyrics that came steeped in the realities of prostitution, S&M and hard drugs.

The Velvets' music was so unwholesome, it made the Rolling Stones seem about as satanic as The Monkees. Hearing their great infamous song "Heroin" startled even a hardened voyeur like Andy Warhol, who promptly showed his genius for folding other people's talents into his own brand. Warhol became the Velvets' manager and made them The Factory's house band. He put them in dazzling multimedia shows, had them take on the icy Nordic beauty Nico as their dead-voice chanteuse and designed the famous banana peel cover of their still astonishing first album. Here, Cale and later Reed talk about the kind of songs Reed wanted to record, songs that include "Heroin."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE VELVET UNDERGROUND")

JOHN CALE: And Lou said, they won't let me record the songs I want to do. And that was like red to a bull. I said, what? And I said, what are the songs that you want? And he showed me these other songs.

LOU REED: I was writing about pain. And I was writing about things that hurt, and I was writing about reality as I knew it or friends of mine had known or things I had seen or heard. Or - I was interested in communicating to people who were on the outside.

CALE: He said, why won't they - because people would complain about these songs being about advocating the use of drugs. But they're not about drugs. They're about guys who are sick and dissatisfied with their lives. Why don't we go do it ourselves?

POWERS: In tracing the band's rise and fall, Haynes hears most from Cale, a vivid, appealing talker. Sadly, Haynes couldn't interview Reed, who died in 2013. Oh, that probably wouldn't have been fun. A trailblazing musician but known to be nasty as a rattlesnake - he notoriously disliked interviews, even walking off this very show.

Still, I like to think that Reed would have respected the integrity of Haynes, whose filmography boasts three daringly original music movies - "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story," "Velvet Goldmine" and "I'm Not There," which cast six different actors as Bob Dylan. No hagiographer, Haynes neatly sidesteps the usual rock doc banalities. He doesn't dwell on personal gossip, doesn't keep telling us that the Velvets were important and doesn't trot out young music stars to make the band seem relevant to the kids.

Instead, he plunges us into the Velvets and their world, using cleverly chosen black-and-white TV footage and flurries of split-screen images. There's almost too much to look at. Haynes evokes the artistic hadron collider that was New York's multimedia '60s. This is a movie full of interesting ideas about the influences on the Velvets' sound, the sexism of Warhol's Factory, the importance of gayness to which Reed was attracted and the rebellious meaning of the band's negativity.

Dressed all in black while touring tie-dyed in California, the Velvets anticipated punk not only in their sound but in their hatred of hippies.

If the last third of Haynes' film loses a bit of steam, that's because the Velvets did. This band that rightly took pride in being like no other fell, ironically enough, into the classic rock band cliches of ego battles, gripes about money and purges. Burning to become a rock star, which he eventually did triumphantly, Reed forced the others to choose between him and Cale. The group made music for a while after Cale's departure, finally breaking up in 1970. But it wasn't the same. Their final album, "Loaded," was merely a good rock album, not something transcendent. Early in the film, Cale tells Haynes that the band was always searching for, quote, "how to be elegant and how to be brutal." At their best, as Haynes elegantly shows us, the Velvet Underground found what they were looking for.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VENUS IN FURS")

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND: (Singing) Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather, whiplash, girl child in the dark - comes in bells, your servant, don't forsake him. Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart.

GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new Todd Haynes documentary "The Velvet Underground." It's now in theaters and on Apple TV+.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be actor Oscar Isaac, who's having an incredible run. He stars in the latest Paul Schrader movie, "The Card Counter," starred with Jessica Chastain in HBO's limited series "Scenes From A Marriage," which concluded this month, and is one of the stars of the new movie "Dune." We'll talk about growing up in an evangelical Christian family that was preparing for the apocalypse, the hurricane that blew off the roof while he was home, how the death of his beloved mother was quickly followed by the birth of his first child. And of course, we'll talk about acting. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE VELVET UNDERGROUND SONG, "VENUS IN FURS")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VENUS IN FURS")

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND: (Singing) Kiss the boot of shiny, shiny leather. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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