Emulating the avant-garde philosophy of Andy Warhol, who produced the Velvets’ debut album, the Carol director’s first documentary explores the band’s dappled legacy, dramas, and sexual spirit with a kaleidoscopic lens
The Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records, but every Oscar-nominated filmmaker called Todd Haynes who bought one after their breakup went on to shoot a kaleidoscopic, loving documentary about them. While The Velvet Underground may not be the most original title for a film, Haynes’ approach certainly is. By emulating the avant-garde philosophy of Andy Warhol, who produced the Velvets’ debut album, Haynes has crafted a shape-shifting, non-fiction feature with split-screen trickery and psychedelic imagery – all of which to complement the electric viola-infused drones of “Heroin”, the Nico-sung pop of “I’ll Be Your Mirror”, and however you classify the discordant breakdown of “Sister Ray”.
When the New York outfit emerged with The Velvet Underground & Nico (the one with the banana on the front cover) in 1967, Haynes, now 60, was only six years old. It was as a teenager that Haynes discovered and embraced the band’s counterculture aesthetic, their off-kilter instrumentation, and the push/pull dynamic of Lou Reed and John Cale on those first two albums. The band’s influence, or at least a kinship, is evident throughout Haynes’ filmography – most of his projects, such as Velvet Goldmine and his tipping-the-velvet romance Carol, could be retitled The Velvet Underground.
“The music felt like a creative invitation,” Haynes tells me, in person, at Soho Hotel, during the London Film Festival. “The band made me feel so creatively aroused, but it made me feel like creativity has a transgressive component. Their work demonstrated going into this place that wasn’t necessarily healthy for them, and therefore creativity isn’t necessarily some healthy endeavour. It didn’t always make them feel good, but it was a place no one had really gone into in music before. It was an avenue of discussion that hadn’t been brought to popular music.
“Of course, these ideas were coming out of the literature and beat fiction – Arthur Rimbaud, Baudelaire, William Burroughs – that Lou Reed was interested in. And maybe the drug experiences that put them outside of the world also connected them to a kind of underground, in every sense of the word. A kind of underground inside yourself, where darker, confused feelings could be expressed.”
If we, like the doc does, exclude the Doug Yule-led Squeeze from the discography, the Velvet Underground were a band fronted by Reed on guitar and vocals for four albums, on which two had Cale as an equal creative force. Reed, born in Brooklyn, was a teenage rebel who dabbled in poetry, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll; flaunting a voice that was perfectly imperfect, Reed dreamed of stardom. In contrast, Cale, raised in Wales, possessed an anti-pop streak, his screeching viola battling against Reed’s catchy choruses. Yet on White Light/White Heat, Cale’s second and final album with the band, “Lady Godiva’s Operation” presents both artists in switched positions: Cale attempts to sing Nico-esque ballads, while Reed cagily interjects.
To visualise the band’s contradictions, The Velvet Underground is a movie version of “The Gift”, the White Light/White Heat track in which Cale performs a spoken word track in your left ear while a separate, feedback-heavy jam explodes in your right ear. “I hadn’t thought of ‘The Gift’, but that makes total sense,” Haynes says. “It’s a biaural experience, that song. Just the music part, it makes you want to play that sometimes. There’s a live recording of it, and it’s such a beautiful jam riff.
“Maybe the drug experiences that put them outside of the world also connected them to a kind of underground, in every sense of the word. A kind of underground inside yourself, where darker, confused feelings could be expressed” – Todd Haynes
“There are moments in the film where you’re asked to divide your experience, or it becomes two things at once. I wanted to see what would happen if people’s attentions could be divided and multiplied, and dispersed across the screen. That felt apropos for the spirit of experimentation and questions being asked by artists in the 60s – Warhol in particular. What constitutes art? What is the duration of art? What separates the audience from the performer in a performance?”
Ever since the film premiered at Cannes, Haynes has endeavoured to watch at least the start of any festival screening. The reason, he explains, is that Warhol’s screen tests are newly hypnotising upon each cinema viewing. For the series appropriately titled Screen Tests, Warhol shot numerous artists, such as Salvador Dalí and Yoko Ono, as they silently gazed into the camera. When Warhol’s footage appears in The Velvet Underground, it’s disorientating: your eyes are focused on one side of the screen, while the other half of the frame is dominated by Reed’s youthful, quizzical face, in black-and-white, staring back at you with furious intensity.
“The little glimpses Lou Reed makes, you think he’s responding to what’s happening next to him,” Haynes says. “It’s what happens throughout (Warhol’s 1966 feature) Chelsea Girls, which is a dual projection film – there’s a riveting dialogue between the two frames. And then you remember that every time that film is shown, no matter how closely the projectionist sticks to the instructions of when the second projection should begin, it’s always going to be different when some smashing pan on the right screen is going to land in a close-up on the left. You think, ‘Wow, that’s so perfect. It’s like Mary Woronov is watching Ondine!’ And then you realise, ‘No, that’s this moment of watching it.’”
For The Velvet Underground, Haynes and his two editors were the metaphorical projectionists, obsessively tinkering with footage during the pandemic. “It was a suspended time… I haven’t spent this much time cutting a film of mine since I’m Not There. A director doesn’t always get their hands back on their movie, unless they’re Steven Soderbergh.” Were the split-screen collages a side-effect of being stuck indoors? If Carol had been edited during COVID, would it have concluded with Cate Blanchett on one side of the frame, Rooney Mara the other, and a black line in between?
“There are moments in the film where you’re asked to divide your experience, or it becomes two things at once. I wanted to see what would happen if people’s attentions could be divided and multiplied, and dispersed across the screen” – Todd Haynes
“No, I don’t think…” Haynes pauses. “In fact, I haven’t shown anybody this.” He reaches to his bag and pulls out a folder filled with graph paper. On the pages he shares with me, diagrams have been drawn, using the squares, to illustrate the multiple ways that smaller frames can fit inside a larger frame. In Haynes’ inked sketches, he’s drawn differently sized silhouettes of talking heads, coloured in which parts of the screen should be completely black, and so on. “It was so exciting for me to think about ways the 1:33 aspect ratio could live within the 1:85, and that we’d keep restaging the 1:33, and it could move across the screen. It was a constant playground.”
Haynes is no stranger to subversive movies about iconic musicians. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story empathetically depicted the Carpenters frontwoman via a gradually shrinking Barbie doll; Velvet Goldmine, which includes Reed’s “Satellite of Love”, cast Christian Bale as a thinly disguised mashup of David Bowie and Jobriath; and I’m Not There reimagined Bob Dylan as multiple personalities, including an incarnation with Blanchett miming along to Stephen Malkmus’ voice.
With The Velvet Underground, though, Haynes lets the band and the music speak for itself – while also investigating how the surrounding New York art scene allowed their talent to flourish. In the recording studio, Warhol was essentially the Rick Rubin of the 60s: his production style was to simply be present. “Andy said, ‘I just want it to sound raw and crude.’ In terms of the actual practice, he cast a sense of freedom and protection over it. His name, as a visible commodity, gave them collateral.”
In his youth, Reed hung out at gay clubs and wrote poetry about having sex with men in public bathrooms. Reportedly, Reed said, “If it’s not dark and if it’s not degrading, it’s not sex.” When the singer received electroshock therapy as a teen, he believed it was his parents attempting to rid him of homosexual urges – a claim fiercely denied by his sister, Merrill Reed-Weiner, in the documentary. For other reasons, Haynes suggests that the word “queer” applies to the band.
“What I think it tried to do was talk about a more transgressive, gay sensibility that felt outside of conventional norms” – Todd Haynes
“It’s tricky,” Haynes says. “We only have the language that we have. It’s remarkable how insufficient the word ‘queer’ is to describe this time, given the advancements in gay culture and LGBTQ+ identity. It feels revisionist, and a contemporary imposition of a new idea onto it. When the word ‘queer’ came into usage more in the 80s and 90s and around gay activism – different people will have different definitions of how ‘queer’ became an appropriated term by gay people, when, of course, it was always a derogatory term against gay people by straight people. But it still feels way after this time.”
“What I think it tried to do was talk about a more transgressive, gay sensibility that felt outside of conventional norms. And so it really was trying to find a word – a politically active word, even – for what a certain kind of gay culture or gay perspective was. Which is true to this period. They just didn’t have a word for it. Andy Warhol called it pop. Susan Sontag called it camp. Baudelaire called it dandy. They’re different but have a relationship to each other. It definitely felt important about the story of this band, and the series of rejections to the rest of the world… People who were not gay in their sexual practices, also just assumed this to be their outlook.
“One way this was expressed was going to the West Coast and going, ‘Ugh. The hippies are so conventional and uptight and bourgeois” – and, as we would say today, heteronormative. Maureen Tucker and John Cale felt that way. All these people from really different backgrounds came together, and shared all these attitudes of rejecting the norms – even norms within counterculture. I think that’s so wild.”
Haynes recently announced that he will direct May December, a Hollywood-themed drama starring Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman. Before then, though, he’s reteaming with Michelle Williams for Fever, a biopic of Peggy Lee that’s likely to shoot next year. I put it plainly to him: what will be the Todd Haynes twist? “It can’t be overtly modernist with six actors playing Peggy Lee,” he says. “It’s not appropriate. Peggy Lee needs to be wrapped up in the gauzy star filters of her style and era… It’s definitely going to employ biopic conventions, because they’re part of that artificial language that she used.
“All these people from really different backgrounds came together, and shared all these attitudes of rejecting the norms – even norms within counterculture. I think that’s so wild” – Todd Haynes
“But Peggy Lee is this amazing combination of someone who used theatricality and created herself as a spectacle, and then also communicated something intimate and present in her live performances. People were on the edge of their seat with her. Her minimalism and restraint as a stylist draws you in even more. She’s all these contradictory things, and occupies this incredibly interesting time, coming out of the jazz era, transitioning into the pop era, and all leading up to the rock era. She somehow survives even that. Then despite her success, there’s a real sadness and loneliness to her.”
Perhaps that sadness and loneliness is why The Velvet Underground & Nico – a scuzzy, lo-fi album recorded with outdated technology – still feels so modern. Over the end credits, “All Tomorrow’s Parties” unfolds in full, with Nico’s booming voice, as if it were written today. “(That album) does feel timeless,” Haynes says. “Any time we talk about forbidden or suppressed or repressed feelings, it always feels new. Repression is about forgetting. And yet, that thing is always inside you. It’s always there. It’s a kind of illusion. Every time it comes out, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, this new thing!’ But actually, it’s always been there.”
The Velvet Underground is in select cinemas and on Apple TV+ globally from October 15