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Todd Haynes' notes on the Underground

Todd Haynes' documentary on  The Velvet Underground is a tribute to the band and the heady scene from which it emerged 

‘The Velvet Undground’ is Todd Haynes' first documentary
‘The Velvet Undground’ is Todd Haynes' first documentary

This is a rock group called The Velvet Underground/ I show movies on them, do you like their sound?/ Cause they have a style that grates/ And I have art to make

These lines are from Style It Takes, a track by Lou Reed and John Cale. The two reunited in 1990—just over 25 years after they formed The Velvet Underground—to record a tribute album to the late Andy Warhol. The “I” is Warhol, the artist and impresario who gave the band a platform and designed the famous banana cover for their debut album. Warhol’s home movies were literally shown on them, projected on to screens behind as they performed their songs on stage.

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A style that grated, and still does—the feedback screech after the first chorus in Run Run Run is gloriously ugly after all these decades. But the Velvets weren’t just an arty provocation out of Warhol’s Factory: They were a rock ‘n’ roll band, albeit one that did viola freakouts. They released four studio albums, the first two of which are pop landmarks, the other two merely excellent. They barely lasted six years but their afterlife has been remarkably influential—insert here the obligatory line about how not many heard the Velvets back in the day, but those who did started their own bands.

When director Todd Haynes first heard the Velvets, he realised he was listening to the blueprint for the punk and new wave music he loved. “I’d felt like I’d found the source,” he said in an interview to Rolling Stone. “I’d found the epicentre.” Now, he has channelled the thrill of that revelation into a film that doesn’t just tell the story of the band but captures the spirit of the scene from which they emerged.

Haynes has made two feature films about musicians earlier: the glam rock throwback Velvet Goldmine and the shapeshifting Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There. He also directed, at the beginning of his career, a curious short called Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, in which the musician and her bandmates were Barbie dolls. The same experimental spirit animates The Velvet Underground (streaming on Apple TV+), Haynes’ first documentary. He uses the Warhol films and other bits and pieces of 1960s avant-garde cinema to create a stream of collages instead of the usual clip-interview-clip. Often, there is an interviewee on the right of the screen and a film scene on the left, or two scenes running side by side, with a voice-over.

This density of information and sensory overload is bracing: the thrill comes from the feeling that you are missing something with every passing frame. Popular film today just doesn’t take these kinds of risks, which is why it’s worth celebrating that Haynes could slip in something like an experimental film under the guise of a band biopic. This is also apt, because Warhol and his associates were at the vanguard of experimental cinema at the time the Velvets were emerging.

The split screens in Haynes' film are a reminder of Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, a film which starred, among others, Nico, the German chanteuse who sang on the first Velvets album. We see clips from the famous Warhol “screen tests” (Reed and Cale were among the subjects) and bits of films by Jonas Mekas and Paul Morrissey. These scenes—casually transgressive, oddly beautiful—are a perfect complement to Velvet classics like Heroin and Venus In Furs, and give us a sense of what it must have been like to see the band perform live, with film, music, lighting and drugs all mixed into one mind-altering package.

Cale participates in the film, as does Velvets drummer Moe Tucker (Reed and Sterling Morrison are no more, and Doug Yule didn’t want to be part of the film). Other talking heads are drawn from the 1960s avant-garde scene: former Warhol superstar Mary Woronov, video artist Tony Conrad, musician La Monte Young. “We are not part, really, of subculture or counterculture,” Mekas says as the screen is split into a dozen moving parts, “we are the culture!” Particularly delightful are the reminiscences by Jonathan Richman of The Modern Lovers, a Velvets superfan. “Not only was it new, it was radically different,” he says of their sound. “It was this slow mid-tempo stuff, strange melodies. You could watch them play and there would be overtones you couldn’t account for.” He recalls how there'd be a few moments of quiet whenever the band abruptly ended a live rendition of the orgiastic Sister Ray. “The crowd would be dead silent for”—counts one, two, three, four on his fingers—“five. And then they would applaud. The Velvet Underground had hypnotised them again.”

Surprisingly for a band that divided opinions so effortlessly, the Velvets have now become a marker of evolved musical taste. A tribute album to The Velvet Underground & Nico, released in September, had an impeccable lineup of alternative musicians—Kurt Vile, Courtney Barnett, Matt Berninger, St Vincent, Thurston Moore. Some of the tracks are brilliant—Michael Stipe’s breathy version of Sunday Morning, King Princess’ snarly There She Goes Again—but it’s also an indication of how close to respectability the Velvets are now. Which is why Haynes’ immersion in 1960s avant-garde, the queer movement, modern art and experimental cinema is a bracing reminder of the heady cross-currents that gave rise to The Velvet Underground.

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