The acclaimed director talks with Rock & Roll Globe about his upcoming Velvet Underground documentary premiering on Apple TV+
The Velvet Underground helped make rock and roll what it is today, their influence informing punk, metal, new wave and alt rock for 55 years
From the moment he picked up a guitar, Lou Reed dreamed of being a rock star. After meeting John Cale, Maureen Tucker and Sterling Morrison, he started the band that would become The Velvet Underground, taking his first steps to fulfilling that dream. At a certain time in the history of the counter culture, The Velvet Underground and Nico was omnipresent on American turntables.
A few years ago, director Todd Haynes was asked to make a documentary about the band’s history. The result is The Velvet Underground, a collage of sound and imagery that creates a full sensory experience. It invites you to hear the band as if for the first time, even if every one of their songs are already imprinted on your brain. It will premiere in theaters and on AppleTV+ on Friday, October 15th.
Using split screen technology, Haynes immerses you in the culture of the art and pop music world of New York in the mid-60s: experimental art, the films of Andy Warhol, the music of John Cage and La Monte Young. He uses archival footage to show off the pre-Velvet lives of Reed, Cale and Tucker and trace the evolution of the band, with sound bites from the pop records they made before becoming The Velvets.
There’s a recording of Reed reciting the lyrics of “Heroin” from The Velvet Underground and Nico; film clips of Cale playing the avant-garde sounds that he’d bring to the band and an interview with Tucker describing the basic, driving approach she took to drumming.
VIDEO: Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable
The movie traces the band from its inception, to its discovery by Andy Warhol – who made them the stars of his Exploding Plastic Inevitable, possibly the first multi-media presentation to blend rock, theater and film – and on to its dissolution, when Reed suddenly quit the band. Saying more would dilute the impact of the sounds and images Haynes and his crew put together to make the film the exhilarating experience it is.
Director Haynes spoke to The Globe to describe the process behind the film.
Was The Velvet Underground a large part of your life?
They became a massive part of the soundtrack of my growing up, but not until I discovered them in college. Before that, I was listening to music that was inspired by The Velvet Underground. After hearing them, I realized that a lot of my favorite music, from Bowie to punk rock, couldn’t have happened without them. I first heard them on records and I still listen to them on vinyl.
The visual and auditory overload in your film makes viewers aware of the unique elements of their sound and recreates the experience of hearing a familiar band, as if for the first time.
Amy Taubin, who was at the Factory with Warhol and heard The Velvets at the very beginning, said the same thing. She said it brought her back to some of the formative events in her life, which is the highest compliment you can pay to a film.
How long did it take to find the archival films you used? How did you track them down?
We partnered with Motto Pictures, a company that produces documentary films. This film is my first documentary, so I said, ‘Let’s partner with someone who knows how what they’re doing.’ My partner, Brian O’Keefe, one of our archive producers, curated the first list of films, including the obvious titles the Velvet Underground appeared in. Then he made a list of the films that encompassed that creative era in New York. That became the template of the films we wanted to get sent to us, so we could edit and work with them. That didn’t take as long as you would think. What took time was getting the licensing permission to use them, a process compounded by the COVID-19 lockdown.
We shot all the interviews in 2018. Then I went off to make my film, Dark Waters, while one of my editors, Adam Kurnitz started building the house, putting together the interviews we shot of the band members with the archival footage.
You focus on the song “Heroin,” to describe the band’s beginnings. What was iconic about that song? It’s also remarkable that the lyric – “I feel just like Jesus’ son” – didn’t have any political or religious people calling for censorship.
The song was never heard by a wide range of people. It had no presence in commercial music. It wasn’t played on the radio and hardly anybody bought The Velvet Underground and Nico. It didn’t make an impression, beyond a very marginal following. It’s an unbelievable magnum opus, within the songs on that first record. It’s a song Lou Reed wrote in high school. Its roots go far back into his evolution as an artist as a young man. It’s a song that Lou and John (Cale) had to figure out how to perform and arrange. Most of those early songs were composed in the folk tradition, with just Lou on guitar and voice. That wouldn’t have been the strongest, most succinct way of communicating the music.
AUDIO: Velvet Underground “Heroin”
How long was it between the idea for the film and its completion?
This idea did not come from me. It came as an invitation from David Blackman, the head of Film and TV Development and Production at Universal Music Group. He controls the rights to The Velvet Underground catalogue. After Laurie Anderson passed the Lou Reed Archives to the New York City Public Library, a conversation developed about a documentary that would go deep into the band, and who Laurie would feel comfortable about approaching to do so. In 2017, Blackman asked me and my producer, Christine Vachon, about doing it. We shot all the interviews in 2018, but it wasn’t until 2019 that I was able to turn my full attention to it.
Have you showed it to John Cale or Maureen Tucker?
Oh, yeah! John wanted to come and perform live after the screening at the New York Film Festival. We held out hope that they would both come to the opening, but Covid created too many obstacles. John saw an early cut and did some additional interviews. He didn’t have any editorial suggestions, but has been an ever-present resource and encourager of this project.
What are the advantages or/or disadvantages to putting it up on AppleTV+ at the same time it debuts in theaters?
That’s a practice that’s become more uniform among streaming companies. All I wanted to know for sure, is that the film would have a theatrical release. That was part of the commitment from Apple. Obviously, we’re facing really precarious times with Covid. Despite that, they pursued a really robust art house release for the film. Of course, I always want everybody to see my films on the screen. The sound in a theater makes a big difference. It’s a very powerful experience. I feel passionately about that, but all films end up streaming on cable. In this time we’re in, not everybody is going to make it to a theater, so I understand that.
VIDEO: The Velvet Underground – Official Trailer