The Velvet Underground were so underground and, with tracks like “Heroin,” so commercially toxic, that little classic performance footage or even promotional footage exists. Director Todd Haynes turns this lack of conventional material into the strongest suit of his documentary about the band.
It has talking head interviews (including of surviving members John Cale and Maureen Tucker). It tells a narrative story and draws from primary footage, but in every other way The Velvet Underground is as unconventional as you’d wish.
Haynes is as interested in The Velvet Underground’s avant-garde roots in music, art and film as he is in the trajectory of the band’s cult following. Indeed, we don’t hear a Velvet Underground track until about 45 minutes in, and even then most of the familiar tracks like “Venus in Furs” and “I’m Waiting for the Man” are introduced from left field.
“I felt that by doing all of that, you would ideally hear the music in a new and fresh way — which is always the challenge with a band whose music is by now, at least within certain circles, so well incorporated in the culture,” Haynes told Slate during the New York Film Festival.
“The idea was to put you in a trance with the more experimental and avant-garde kinds of music that John Cale in particular was focusing on. We also used stems from the Velvets’ songs, without the vocals, without certain key components of the music, to kind of lure you into it, seducing the viewer into thinking that the core underpinnings of these songs were in the air before they were formed.”
This is Haynes’ first documentary but he’s made fictions infused with the legends of glam rock and David Bowie (Velvet Goldmine, 1998), and Bob Dylan (I’m Not There, 2007). In 1988, Haynes released his short biographical film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which portrays the last 17 years of the singer’s life as she struggled with anorexia, and uses Barbie dolls as actors. Withdrawn from circulation in 1990 following a lawsuit for copyright infringement for the film’s unauthorized soundtrack, Superstar gained a huge cult following and changed the very definition of a biographical film.
For The Velvet Underground, Haynes mined the archives of still images by major photographers, some of whom, like the teenage Stephen Shore, came out of Andy Warhol’s Factory in New York City. Indeed, the only real footage of this band was by Warhol, arguably the most influential artist of the 20th century.
“All this started in late 1965, about two years after Warhol committed himself to film. So, we didn’t have normal concert footage or tour stuff,” Haynes said. “We only had Lou Reed’s recorded interviews on radio and on film, and he doesn’t talk a great deal about the band. So we had to construct this whole preamble to the birth of The Velvet Underground without him and do it in a way that is compelling. [Plus] we only wanted people in the film who were there at that time.”
READ MORE: Todd Haynes Explains Why The Velvet Underground Couldn’t Be a Typical Documentary (Slate)
He includes Warhol’s movies, as well as experimental films from Jonas Mekas, Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage and Shirley Clarke, Jack Smith, Tony Conrad, Marie Menken, Barbara Rubin, and many more.
“This was not ornamental. This was completely intrinsic to the story of how these people met up, who they hung out with, the kind of work they were doing and how they really were the house band for Cinematheque screenings, before they were even called The Velvet Underground,” Haynes explained. “The music becomes visualized. And the culture becomes visualized. Not in a literal, illustrative way, but really the bloodstream of the culture we were trying to show through the films.”
Editors Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz cut the movie. When Gonçalves and Haynes detoured to make Dark Waters (2019), it was Kurnitz who created the assembly briefed by Haynes to include things like playing Warhol’s screen tests of Reed and Cale in their full duration, and using a diptych and multiple screens as an embrace of the way Warhol and other filmmakers of the time re-envisioned projected, time-based images.
“When we saw his cut of the first third of the film, we were blown away because it was so compelling, both visually and conceptually,” Haynes said.
The director’s interview with film critic Amy Taubin for ArtForum is most enlightening. That’s because Taubin was there at the time of The Velvet Underground’s promotion at Warhol’s Factory. Warhol even shot screen tests of Taubin which are included in a “chapter” of Couch (1964).
She points out that Cale is a great narrator for the first half of the film, until the point in the story, in 1968, where Reed forces him out of the band. “Then he pretty much disappears, and I feel the loss of him,” she says.
Haynes replies, “There’s just no way to balance out or supplement the lack of Lou Reed (who died in 2013). I felt I could only take the testimony of the living and decide what and what not to use. There’s no direct relationship of subject to result. It’s a constant negotiation of information. John wanted to do a thorough and thoughtful job and took it so seriously, even though it’s a story that he’s given many times over the years.”
READ MORE: Interview: You’ll Be My Mirror (ArtForum)
The film is also specifically about the avant-garde world in New York City at that moment in time. Not only were Reed’s lyrics “antithetical to the enforced optimism of so much of the counterculture at the time,” as Haynes says, but there was a cultural chasm between NYC and the West Coast.
The irritation with the flower-power of LA’s hippies holds no truck with Tucker today either.
“This love/peace crap, we hated that, get real,” the 77-year-old says in the documentary. “Free love, everybody’s wonderful and everybody loves everybody, aren’t I wonderful? You cannot change minds by handing flowers to some bozo who wants to shoot you.”
For good measure, Factory actress Mary Woronov adds, “We hated hippies. You know, flower power, burning bras, what the fuck is wrong with you? We become anti a lot of things that other people aren’t anti.”
The Velvet Underground is currently streaming on Apple TV+.