Todd Haynes gives us a first look at his Velvet Underground documentary
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Though he may be best known for lush transgressive melodramas like Carol and Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes is certainly no stranger to music world. His outré depictions of glam rock (1998's Velvet Goldmine) and Bob Dylan (2007's I'm Not There) put a dizzying, dazzling spin on the very idea of what a biopic could be; even his early avant-garde experiment Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which famously recast the soft-pop singer's life in molded Barbie-doll plastic, went on to become a cult classic.
What Haynes hasn't done till now, with the upcoming release of The Velvet Underground (due this summer on Apple TV+), is a documentary — though you would hardly expect him to take a traditional route. And you would be correct: "The real opportunity for me as a filmmaker since this is the first documentary I've ever made," he told EW from his home in Portland, "was to really seize upon the visual world that was occurring in the '60s in New York that made this band possible.
"Because although there's very little traditional footage of them playing like you'd see in other rock docs, what you have is the exquisite Andy Warhol films that they played a part in, that he often shot in order to project them on the stage over them while they performed. And so, it really uses the language of those films. It's just stuffed with the most gorgeous experimental film and photography, and what I hope is that it will take the audience back to that time and also let you hear the music in that context and hear it anew."
Don't expect total art-school anarchy, though; there's still a firm backbone beneath all those shifting aspect ratios and split screens. Underground has the full participation of the group's surviving members John Cale and Maureen "Moe" Tucker, as well as the papers that singer Lou Reed's longtime partner, the artist Laurie Anderson, gathered for the official Reed archives now held at the New York Public Library following his death in 2013.
For Haynes, it was also an opportunity to dig into the famously irascible frontman's more tender side: "There was no doubt Lou Reed was complicated and tough, and a lot of the stories that we share in the movie are about a very complicated and difficult personality who at times could be oppositional and objectional and challenging to the people around him, but also just somebody of such extraordinary wit and clarity and drive."
"We have tapes from [legendary music manager] Danny Fields that he shared with us of the two of them hanging out and talking," he goes on, "some of it from the Velvets era and some of it a bit later. In fact, there's a beautiful interview that Danny shared with me of playing bands for him for the very first time, like The Ramones, and you hear Lou just talking about this experience [and] in the midst of it, he just turns and says, 'Oh my God, John would just go crazy for this' — John Cale. We know that there was estrangement through that entire relationship and following their years together in the band, and it just was so touching to hear him go right to this person who had such a core role in his creative life at the beginning."
"We have Jonathan Richman too, who doesn't do a lot of interviews. He was a teenager in Boston when it really became the band's new residency, this venue in Cambridge, and he became their mascot. He was a kid and he basically drove them around in his station wagon to parties and he went to every single show, he saw them about 60 or 70 times. He met Andy Warhol, he met Nico. He met everybody right at the time, and then they were gone. And he describes this band who were so lovely to him and so open to him. It's not the tough, mean, hardcore Velvet Underground that people picture. And so this artist who is so influential in his own right and so articulate, he plays his guitar during the interview and demonstrates what he's talking about sonically, musically."
Though the bulk of filming was completed by 2019, certain world events put the brakes on further plans. "During COVID when we were locked up," says Haynes, "I felt like me and my two editors, Affonso [Gonçalves] and Adam [Kurnitz], were able to just play with all of this amazing source material. Adam was in Brooklyn, Fonsi and I were in L.A. together, and we stayed quarantined together in the editing room. We just got to play and just dive into this incredibly beautiful chapter of American art, and I think you see that in the movie, it's sort of infectious."
As for release plans, he's genuinely pleased that so many people will have the chance to see it on their home screens — but hopeful too that at least a lucky few will once again get to experience the particular joys of sitting in a dark room with friends and strangers alike. "Apple's been fantastic about not wanting to rush it out and to see what happens this year, and so we're waiting for festivals when they actually start to return — or at least that's our current hope," he says. "My producing partner Christine Vachon was on a jury for Venice [one of the few festivals that managed to carry on in-person last year despite the pandemic] and she said that opening night, people were just weeping, it was such a powerful experience to be together.
"So look, I'm ever-optimistic. I've seen the film in a local theater in Portland to check it out and to hear how it sounds in the room, and it's a really powerful experience. Of course, that's true for most movies!" he breaks off with a laugh. "But this one being such a visceral, visual trip, I just can't wait for people to see it on the big screen. I'm really hoping that that will happen."