Todd Haynes Slowly Peels the Cover Off The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground started a revolution. Todd Haynes charts the evolution for those who can’t read notation.

A collection of Velvet Underground images
Photo: Apple TV+

Todd Haynes is more of a conductor than the director of The Velvet Underground. He tells the story of the band in chronological time, but fills in the blanks by presenting a performance piece of historical art. This is Haynes’ first documentary. It is the first time he hasn’t put a fictional spin on the musicians he’s committed to celluloid. Haynes built a story for David Bowie to sit in for Velvet Goldmine, recharacterized Bob Dylan sixfold in I’m Not There, and cast a Barbie Doll as Karen Carpenter in his 2015 biopic Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. For his latest musical transposition, he focused on tones over reinterpretation.

Haynes had been developing the documentary for several years. Besides contemporary interviews with John Cale and drummer Maureen Tucker, there is only archival footage of conversations with Reed, guitarist Sterling Morrison and Christa Päffgen – whose stage name was Nico. The Velvet Underground only includes interviews with people who knew the band personally during the time they were together. We hear from Reed’s sister, Merrill Reed Weiner; Warhol Factory artists Mary Woronov and Amy Taubin; cult director John Waters; and Modern Lovers front man Jonathan Richman.

With John Cale as the centerpiece and Lou Reed providing a structuring absence, the underground art scene of 1960s New York City is not just a character in the film, but a member of the group. The Velvet Underground’s first album only sold 30,000 copies, but they were the right copies. Almost everyone who bought it started a band, as they say.

The Velvet Underground is dedicated to Jonas Mekas, a father of the American avant-garde-film movement, and the film captures the feel of Andy Warhol’s older films. It is not an exposé, but an exploration of the band’s music and aesthetic. Haynes is obviously a fan of the band beyond the sound. He may never have jammed with them, but is nonetheless a card-carrying member of the Velvet Underground movement. The director spoke with Den of Geek about contradictions and the contradictory musicians who made up Velvet Underground.

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Den of Geek: Were you surprised at all by the pre-Velvet Underground music of Lou Reed or John Cale?

Todd Haynes: Oh, I was, absolutely. I mean, I had heard “The Ostrich” before, but I don’t think I’d really spent time with Lamont Young’s recordings before this film. I may have heard like one or two of the early rock and roll songs of Lou when he was the Jades, but not to this degree. So, all that stuff was part of the discovery process that was so fascinating.

I wanted to know more about the hum of the refrigerator being used as a pitch. I’ve read a little about the difference between 440-megahertz tuning. What was Cale hitting on with the drone of Western civilization?

I wish I could really do that justice. I have all of it that he expressed in the film, but I’m hardly an expert of the sixty cycles per second that he was using as his register. Actually, tonight in Los Angeles, John Cale will be watching the film for the first time on the screen. We showed him a cut, but he’ll be with us at the screening and I’m insanely excited and a little nervous. Of course, I know he digs the movie, and he’s just been such a generous partner in the making of the movie. But it’s still John Cale, and this is my gift to the surviving members of The Velvet Underground. So, of course, I want him to have the kind of experience, in the room, that has been exciting for a lot of other viewers of the movie.

You got the talk with Cale, but Reed comes across as a little inauthentic in the documentary, but I see him as a closeted greaser.

Because he doesn’t get to speak for himself? In all the clips of all the audio clips, we really pulled together every single thing we could find of him talking about the band over the years. It doesn’t replace the fact that he isn’t with us and that I didn’t get the chance, however risky that may have been, to sit in the room with Lou Reed and try to find ways of making him feel comfortable talking about this time and place. But I don’t feel that he’s inauthentic.

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In fact, I feel like all the colors of Lou Reed, all the shades of Lou Reed are surprisingly evident from the youngest age. All of his hostility, all of his genius, all of his searching and desire to look in unexpected places for inspiration for his music and to explore sexuality, and really push back against the establishment in every conceivable way, was evident so early on. Therefore, the tough things you hear about Lou Reed are less attributable to rock and roll behavior. They’re part of his DNA. And I feel like in that way, it makes him this really intensely complicated genius from the very beginning.

You used “Satellite of Love” in Velvet Goldmine, did you get to speak with Reed back then?

I did not. I’ve never spoken to Lou Reed. But we got a very fast yes when we requested the song. I, just in my happy isolation or safe isolation from literally talking to Lou Reed, took that as some sign that maybe he knew my work or approved of what I was doing. That he wasn’t going to push back against what we’re doing in ways that he had. Like around the I Shot Andy Warhol film and other things that touched maybe more closely on depicting him.

I loved the story about the healthy hippies, but of all the West Coast bands, the Mothers of Invention really were the least healthy looking, and probably closest in tone to Velvet Underground. Reed himself made Zappa’s induction at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. How much of that feud was pushed because it felt good?

This comes from them. This doesn’t come from me. I listened to Zappa and the Mothers of Invention when I was in high school. I never fell in love with that music the way I did with the Velvet Underground. I think it’s quite different, even if they are both bands and artists who are experimenting and drawing from all kinds of unorthodox traditions and music, and trying to fold that into what’s possible in rock and roll. But this is entirely the history, this is well documented.

What were you surprised to learn about both the band and the scene that was going on around them?

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I didn’t really learn anything radically different about the scene. I learned that my instincts about it were fairly reliable. The things about this scene, which I felt really needed to be expressed or reinstated around the Velvet Underground, who have now finally reached the level of full cultural absorption and acceptance that had been long postponed in their history. We’re still the product of a really ulterior way of seeing the world that had very much to do with a kind of queer ethos. It’s a word that we impose, a kind of revisionism, of the terms around gay identity and gay experience.

There’s never quite the right word for it. And in a way, it’s why the word “popism” or the word “camp” are put in for aesthetic ways that were being asserted by art making. But when they clashed with the West Coast, I think they realized the degree to which their genius was a form of depravity, and they knew that. But I think they couldn’t literally stand up and say, “Yeah, this is who we are, and we find the rest of the counterculture to be kind of bourgeois and uptight and sort of conformist by comparison.”

You skipped over some of the more problematic habits. Were you afraid to uncover something transcendent about heavy drug use?

No, I wasn’t afraid at all, I think when I asked everybody about drug use, which is something I asked every single person I interviewed, there was always a slight feeling of “Ok. Yeah, we did it, but look what it was serving.” Until John Cale really talks about the amphetamine use, entering that second record and what the experience of the second record really was, and starting to force conflicts within the band among the band members themselves, particularly him and Lou.

For the most part, they were talking about the use of drugs as ways of furthering their artistic drives. Yeah, they were giving them the sustenance in the speed use, they were isolating themselves from the rest of the world in the heroin use: in ways of really feeling an “us versus them” sense of what their project was going to be musically and creatively. As John says, a kind of disdain for the world without. I don’t think the music, its content and its character, is the result of the drugs. I think the drugs helped further what all of those things were trying to do.

Warhol filmed everything. Why is there not more footage of their shows?

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Hmm. No idea. What you see is what was shot. There was nothing, obviously, that we got from their shows that we didn’t put in this film. And you know enough to know that’s true. But, by not showing the actual playing of music, you had to find all of these other ways of showing creative imagination. I think it maybe gives it back to the audience to connect it to what they did musically, to make all these connections yourself to the music that you’re hearing in the context of the visual language that was being produced with its own drive and diversity and volume of outcome.

I know your next documentary is on Peggy Lee, but who else from this period might you be taking on? Patti Smith?

Nobody on my list right now. Peggy will be a world that I’ve never explored before, of the jazz pop era, and a complicated, brilliant subject. I’ve done a lot of films about musicians, but most of them have been about men, and it’ll be pretty cool to talk about such a singular example of a female voice from a male dominated time, who was a writer and producer and conceiver of all of her work and such a bizarre example of the sort of agency around sexual desire on the part of the woman.

The Velvet Underground is in theaters and available to stream on Apple TV+ now.