Director Todd Haynes on His Provocative New Doc ‘The Velvet Underground’
It’s an ironic fact that the rock bands that seemingly play the least complicated music are generally the hardest to mimic. Any bar band can pull off a passable ‘Stairway to Heaven’ by following the dotted lines – but then will fail miserably when attempting to capture the raw energy of a three-chord wonder by the Stones. The Velvet Underground own that irony to the fullest, as anyone whose misguidedly attempted to cover, say, ‘Heroin,’ a deceptively simple song.
The real reason for this is that those two chords are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and for artists that really matter there’s always a whole world of meaning, passion, and ideology under the surface. With the VU what transpired behind the scenes was as influential to what happened on stage and on record as with possibly any other band ever. They were veritably interpreting the countercultural zeitgeist with sound.
Trying to capture the sense of time and place that birthed the VU, i.e. New York City circa 1965 and onwards, would be a thoroughly daunting task for any filmmaker. But the choice of Todd Haynes seemed obvious to direct the definitive doc about the band, as his calling cards included the thoroughly outré Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (which used Barbie dolls as actors), Velvet Goldmine, about the ’70s British glam scene, and I’m Not There, in which multiple actors, including Cate Blanchett, portrayed Bob Dylan. And his eloquently titled new film The Velvet Underground (in theaters and streaming globally on Apple TV+ as of October 15) is surely his best music-focused work to date.
But the essential question would be, why was this the right time to make a documentary about the VU, nearly fifty years after they split up?
“It took I think Lou Reed passing away,” Haynes offers, “and Laurie Anderson deciding to make the archives available to the New York Public Library – it suggested that it was time to go deeper. And I was humbly privileged to be considered by her and John Cale.”
Combining riveting archival footage and present-day interviews, Haynes puts major and minor players together to show us the speed-fueled, grimy, intoxicating, black and white world in which the Velvets germinated. Everyone you can think of is here, from Andy Warhol and Edie and all their “superstars,” to Allen Ginsberg, Danny Fields, Jonas Mekas, and of course most importantly the band and their teutonic muse/frenemy Nico. Much is explained by Reed and Cale themselves, expounding on the band’s confrontational sound and their constant struggles to create and become relevant. Mo Tucker, their dry-witted drummer is bitingly charming (“That love and peace crap, we hated that,” she sneers about the California hippies), as is late guitarist Sterling Morrison.
“One thing that I wanted to understand more is how they stood outside the rest of counterculture,” Haynes explains. “I do think it had a lot to do with a sort of gay sensibility – we would now call it a ‘queer’ sensibility. It was a defiant position against even other alternative cultures that were exploding in the 1960s. This one had its own coolness and darkness, I would say, that Warhol scene existed on its own terms, with a contempt for the more mainstream ideas about rebellion. It made the rest of the counterculture feel a little uptight, bourgeois and even homophobic.”
The doc also doesn’t flinch from addressing the New York drug culture of that time, even recalling how Lou Reed would go uptown to score, just so he could write about it.
Haynes observes, “The drugs didn’t form their point of view, but the drugs fueled their energies and fired their energies, and helped them stand apart. The drug practices deepened that feeling of ‘us against the world.’ But they were really driven by their creative interests.”
As the digital age decisively flattens out contemporary culture, the exhilaration of a decade when experimental art, music, fashion and street life came together to create a new countercultural order has certainly begun to slip a bit from memory. But with The Velvet Underground, Todd Haynes has created an important document that vividly reminds how essential they were in tearing down the old order, and influencing nearly everything that came after.