Todd Haynes’ Notes From the ‘Underground’
The director’s new documentary on the Velvet Underground summons the band’s rebel spirit
A new doc on the Velvet Underground summons the band’s rebel spirit.
It’s said that everyone who saw the Velvet Underground went out and started their own band. In a perfect world, everyone who sees The Velvet Underground
(October 15th on Apple TV+), Todd Haynes’ extraordinary look back at the seminal
New York band, would not only start their own group but also pick up a camera. The first documentary from the director of the glam-rock time capsule Velvet Goldmine
(1998) and the many-sidesof-Bob-Dylan biopic I’m Not There (2007), it includes archival footage, behindthe-scenes anecdotes, and interviews with Velvets co-founder John Cale, drummer Maureen Tucker, and many surviving collaborators.
But Haynes also borrows from the same sources that inspired the transgressive group — avant-garde cinema, pop art, downtown bohemianism, rock & roll rebelliousness — in telling the story of the Velvets’ brief career, from their time as Andy Warhol’s house band at the Factory to their eventual flameout a few years later. From the moment the film sets up Cale and Lou Reed coming together via split screen, an homage to Warhol’s film Chelsea Girls,
you get that this is a singular, experimental look at a singular, experimental band.
“I felt we didn’t need a movie about the Velvet Underground that simply said how great they were; there are tons of critics who can tell you that,” Haynes says, calling in from his home in Portland, Oregon. “I wanted to honor them but, in the spirit of the group, do something radical.”
Like many people, Haynes came to the Velvet Underground while in college in the 1980s, through their late-act peers (David Bowie, Roxy Music), punk, and the band’s connection to Warhol, who also served as its early manager. Decades later, in 2017, Haynes found himself honored at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, alongside musician Laurie Anderson. The two hit it off; as it turns out, she had just given the L.A. Public Library her late-husband Reed’s archives. When producers subsequently approached her about a portrait of the Velvets, she suggested Haynes.
The filmmaker quickly set down a rule: For interviews, Haynes wanted only people who were there, or who personally knew Reed and late guitarist Sterling Morrison. Cale was one of the first to sign on. (“I considered almost everything that Todd [has] made the work of a ‘safe pair of hands,’ ” he says via email, adding that Haynes’ participation was the difference “between carnivorous attention and the unconscious pursuit of beauty.”) Bassist-organist-vocalist Doug Yule, who joined the band for its third album, declined to participate — “He’s an environmentalist, and I think he felt there were other urgent matters that needed his attention,” Haynes says — but Modern Lovers singer and press-shy superfan Jonathan Richman sat for a rare on-camera conversation. “He saw 60 to 80 shows of theirs in Boston and got to know them as a teenager,” Haynes says. “You would have thought that the Velvet Underground would have just laughed him out of the room. And instead, they taught him how to play guitar.”
After talking to the principals and witnesses, Haynes immersed himself in the explosion of art that was happening around the Velvets as they started to craft their dark, droning sound (what Cale calls “equal parts Bo Diddley and Aaron Copland”). Not just Warhol’s subversive, superstar-driven projects, but the work of filmmakers Jonas Mekas and Jack Smith, composers La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, and a host of others creating art in downtown Manhattan’s avant-garde-friendly ecosphere. “I knew I wanted to tell that story through the late-Sixties’ experimental vernacular,” Haynes says. “There was a crossing of boundaries at the time from mainstream to marginal, from underground to commercial. I thought, ‘Let’s make a film that isn’t an oral history. Let’s make one where the music and the images lead us, not the words.’ ”
The result feels like a movie that might have screened next door to one of the Velvets’ Plastic Inevitable performances, or like Warhol’s famous film of the band, which he projected over them while they played — a beautiful riot of noise, colliding visuals, clips of the band at its height, and testimonials that put everything into a 360-degree context.
The Velvet Underground feels, in other words, a lot like one of the band’s albums, where the combination of contrasting elements come together to form something poetic and perverse.
“Honestly, even if their music didn’t completely get inside me, I would have wanted to make a movie about them,” Haynes says. “It’s about being resistant.
It’s saying no. That’s so important to rock & roll.”
“We didn’t need a movie that simply said how great they were. I wanted to honor them but, in the spirit of the group, do something radical.”