PRINT October 2021



Todd Haynes,  The Velvet Underground, 2021, 4K video, color and black-and-white, sound, 121 minutes. From left: John Cale, Gerard Malanga, Nico, Andy Warhol.

SOMETIME IN 1963, or perhaps it was late 1962, I found my way to a downtown loft where the Dream Syndicate—the configuration of La Monte Young, John Cale, Tony Conrad, Angus MacLise, and Marian Zazeela—was playing weekly concerts. The sound produced was massive—tones sustained for impossible durations at impossible volumes, so that you felt as if you were inside the sound and that the connection between ear and brain was transformed. These concerts shaped my aesthetic even more than the similarly aggressive, expanded time in movies by Andy Warhol, Ken Jacobs, Michael Snow, and Barbara Rubin, among others. Cale eventually broke with Young and took his amplified viola, retooled to allow him to play four strings at once—he likened the resulting drone to a jet engine—to form an unlikely partnership with Lou Reed, an aspiring R&B-influenced pop star and poet of queer darkness. They became the Velvet Underground and I first heard them play at a smoke-saturated Greenwich Village café. Rubin, a friend, told me about the gig, right around the time she brought me to the Silver Factory, where Warhol shot two Screen Tests of me and put me in a “chapter” of Couch (1964), where I sat between two Superstars and very slowly ate a banana. Although Warhol’s work has remained a touchstone for me, the Factory was not the place for a married, bougie young woman who didn’t do drugs and was having a promising career in the New York theater. (This despite my understanding that whatever was happening on Broadway was meaningless compared with underground cinema and music.)

About five years ago, Todd Haynes told me he wanted to interview me for a movie he was making about the Velvets. It is a great project for a filmmaker who is rooted in underground cinema and music—their queerness and attack on everything mainstream—even as he has become one of the most uncompromising directors of American narrative art cinema. About the Velvets, Haynes wrote: “This was not just music but a kind of drug, some strange elixir that affected the drives associated with making things (like our first proud ‘gift’ during the anal aggressive stage). This was music that singled you out, identified you not only as someone who suffers and transgresses but who believes in it. This was music that aroused creative desire. And somewhere within its cavernous sound an understanding that creativity itself comes, at least in part, out of subjugation.”

Amy Taubin

Todd Haynes, The Velvet Underground, 2021, 4K video, color and black-and-white, sound, 121 minutes.

AMY TAUBIN: When did you first hear the Velvet Underground?

TODD HAYNES: In college, after already being very into David Bowie, Roxy Music, Patti Smith, punk rock, and New Wave—all of which are impossible to imagine without the Velvet Underground. It was like finding the common root. Bowie was famously performing songs from the first Velvet Under-ground record in his earliest Ziggy Stardust shows, so I knew songs through him. I almost wonder if I had heard Transformer or Rock ’n’ Roll Animal before the Velvets. I can’t quite sort it out, but it felt destined.

AT: Is this the first documentary you’ve made?

TH: Yeah, although it might raise questions about documentary convention. It has talking heads. It tells a narrative story. It draws from primary footage. In all those ways, it absolutely fits the category. But I hope that it might offer a different kind of experience than a lot of music documentaries. This is a band for which there is no classic performance footage or even promotional footage. but there is an amazing archive of still images by major photographers, some of whom, like the teenage Stephen Shore, came out of Warhol’s Factory. Indeed, the only real footage of this band was by Warhol, one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century, if not the most influential artist of our time. And all this started in late 1965, about two years after he committed himself to film. So we didn’t have normal concert footage or tour stuff. 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. And we only wanted people in the film who were there at that time.

“The Velvet Underground burned so quickly that it felt appropriate that the film should have a kind of meteoric trajectory. —Todd Haynes

AT: The first hour is electrifying. Such a pileup of images and sound, and the tension keeps rising until you get to the VU performing with Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable at the Dom, and then there is a descent into hell. Which is in keeping with my experience of the VU and also of the ’60s as a whole. I had been devoted to the Dream Syndicate and I just followed John Cale when he brought the electric viola, the drone, and those flatted-seventh chords to what became the VU. John is a great narrator for the first half of the film, until the point in the story, in 1968, where Lou forces him out of the band. Then he pretty much disappears, and I feel the loss of him. The Velvets were a combination of the darkness of John’s sound and the darkness of Lou’s lyrics and the conflict between them about what they wanted music to do.

Todd Haynes, The Velvet Underground, 2021, 4K video, color and black-and-white, sound, 121 minutes. From left: Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Maureen (Moe) Tucker.

TH: There’s just no way to balance out or supplement the lack of Lou Reed. 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. I’m still that fan of great art and music and film, and, like all fans, I had to pinch myself and say, Oh my God, I’m talking to John Cale. He’s willing to participate in my version of this very important story in his life. All these things are still somewhat shocking to me in a way I want to retain. Sometimes I feel that in the process of making the films about Bowie and Dylan, the love—the fandom and the imaginative place of the fan, which a lot of my films are actually more about than the real-life stories—gets transferred and lost in the process. I go through it and come out the other side. That’s particularly true of Velvet Goldmine [1998]. I feel then that my films are things I give to other people, who become stand-ins for myself. But I’m no longer them. I’m not there anymore. Certain works of art and artists and musicians and bands engender a relaying of creative desire more than others. I feel that the Velvet Underground does that for reasons that have a lot to do with how intertwined they were with the creative activity that surrounded them in the ’60s. As the famous line goes, the few people who bought their first record all started bands. We wanted to trace the different kinds of backgrounds and musical influences they were bringing to one another: the narratives and messages of Lou’s lyrics (which were so antithetical to the enforced optimism of so much of the counterculture at the time); the R&B drive and garage feedback of his music; the African-influenced drumming of Moe Tucker and the elegance of Sterling Morrison’s lead guitar, all of it anchored by John’s drone. And finally, John and Lou’s—however coerced—decision to add Nico’s voice. It was a bizarre confluence and, in its volatile brilliance, unsustainable.

“I feel that my films are things I give to other people, who become stand-ins for myself. But I’m no longer them. I’m not there anymore.” —T. H.

AT: There’s a clip toward the end of Andy and Lou. It must be in the early ’70s, and they are sitting together, and they both look so . . . I don’t know how to say it. Just sweet. It’s a side of Lou’s queerness that he never showed in performance, where he was so defiantly hard-core.

TH: Until then, we haven’t seen Lou in an interview throughout the film, so you crave it. He mentions the Velvets and Maureen and then John Cale. But actually he’s showing Andy the book Rock Dreams [1973], which includes Guy Peellaert’s double portrait of Bowie and Lou as well as a portrait of the Velvets. One priority for me in the film was to emphasize the queerness that defined the Factory in contradistinction to hippie counterculture at large. That’s really important to the work that they were doing, the sensibility they were describing, and the opposition they represented even to such a robust youth culture defined by rebellion and innovation. It infused the music, the art, and the atmosphere. It was very pre-Stonewall, too. It was not a liberationist idea of queerness.

Todd Haynes, The Velvet Underground, 2021, 4K video, color and black-and-white, sound, 121 minutes. Andy Warhol and Lou Reed.

AT: The film is dedicated to Jonas Mekas, arguably the father of the American avant-garde-film movement. 

TH: The idea from the start was to tell the story of this band through the experimental cinema of the ’60s from which they emerged. We licensed two and a half hours of footage—some archival, but mostly avant-garde—for a film that runs under two hours. We have forty-five minutes of Warhol films but also the whole range of movies shown in New York at that time by filmmakers including Jonas, Jack Smith, Tony Conrad, Stan Brakhage, Marie Menken, Barbara Rubin, and many more. I worked with two editors, Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz. Fonzi and I had to go away to make Dark Waters [2019], and we left Adam to do an assembly based on stuff that I wanted him to do, like playing Warhol’s screen tests of Lou Reed and John Cale in their full duration and using the diptych and even more multiple screens as an embrace of the way Warhol and other filmmakers of the time reenvisioned 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. By simply playing La Monte’s drone music with the Warhol films, you get it. Even though these are two very different artists and La Monte had objections to Warhol, they were still influencing each other, challenging ideas of duration and the sorts of conventions we bring to our experience of art, particularly live music and film. The drone keeps you hanging on the edge of your seat. You keep expecting it to change, and it does have internal modulations, just like the little changes that occur in the Warhol films, as when two people are kissing and their faces move in and out of the light, or when the lights go on in the Empire State Building, or how John Giorno’s chest rises and falls in Sleep [1963]. Those small changes have a huge impact, and this radical extension of time was the vehicle from which the Velvet Underground emerges. After that, there was a lot more to squeeze in, and a lot more velocity. But they did burn so quickly that it felt appropriate that the film should have a kind of meteoric trajectory.

Todd Haynes, The Velvet Underground, 2021, 4K video, color and black-and-white, sound, 121 minutes. Nico.

When the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this summer, it was suggested that the lights should come up before the final credits rolled. But in the end, they showed the six minutes of credits in the dark as “All Tomorrow’s Parties” plays. You watch the names of all these artists scroll by and the titles of the visual art, poems, and music. It’s truly part of the wonder of this era, and my hope is that viewers feel like they’re putting it together themselves.