Pop Culture

Todd Haynes Explains Why Nobody Did It Like the Velvet Underground

The Oscar nominee on his eponymous film, the rare rock doc that doubles as an actual movie.

The most famous thing ever said about The Velvet Underground—a quote attributed to Brian Eno—is that even though their first album sold poorly, everyone who bought it started a band. But you won’t hear anyone repeat that old saw in Todd Haynes’s invigorating documentary about the group. This movie is way too cool for anything like that.

When watching The Velvet Underground, out on Apple TV+ on October 15, it becomes clear that Haynes was born to tell the story of how Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker (and, for part of the time, German chanteuse Nico) blew up modern music from 1965 to 1970. Haynes’s love of rock and pop has always been a part of his career, from Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story through Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There. (It even found its way into kid-friendly film Wonderstruck with a Robert Fripp needle-drop), In their way, his films are also all about charging against the mainstream.

Both he and the band were at the tip of the spear during important movements as well. The Velvet Underground was an integral part of Andy Warhol’s Factory and the birth of multimedia rock extravaganzas, while Haynes was essential to New Queer Cinema in the late 1980s and early 1990s. From Haynes’s opening shots, which mirror Warhol–Paul Morrissey Chelsea Girls–style split-screens, to his swirling use of disorienting sound, to the doc’s deep dive into 1960s imagery both mainstream and avant-garde, The Velvet Underground is not simply a rote record of what some musicians accomplished. Unlike a lot of rock documentaries, it’s an actual film.

Todd Haynes and I spoke after the movie’s bow at the New York Film Festival, discussing what made the band so transgressive, chasing the thrill of artistic astonishment, and the changing ways in which young people now experience cool stuff.

Vanity Fair: I first became aware of this film when Cannes announced its slate. I saw “documentary about the Velvet Underground,” and then I saw your name—and said, “Oh, shit, this is a real movie!”

Todd Haynes: [Laughs] Yeah.

Did you have a list of what not to do to make sure this wasn’t just another rock doc?

For sure, and those limitations were really helpful creative engines. I wanted the film to be about the time and the place, which immediately determined I would not interview countless people—albeit fantastic and talented people—about how the Velvets influenced them, what they mean to society, all that stuff. I feel like I’ve heard that; it’s what you expect.

So it meant I had to see who is still around and get them. In some cases, it meant get them quickly—like [avant-garde filmmaker and cofounder of New York’s Anthology Film Archives] Jonas Mekas, who had just turned 96 years old.

Some of the other stuff that isn’t there was less my own decision, and just what comes of the Velvet Underground. There is very little concert footage of the band. Certainly not the concert footage you associate with a rock doc; no promotional stuff or interviews.

Not a lot of backstage chatter, but there’s plenty of the Factory footage.

Right. Instead, there’s the amazing stuff that no other band in the universe has in their materials. This directed me right into the avant-garde world in New York City.

Everyone’s heard of the Velvet Underground, but not everyone’s heard their music. Where would you direct a noob to go for their first song?

That’s so hard for me. Each album is so intensely distinct. The first record [The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1967]—the best known and most influential—it has hard rock songs on it, then ballads that Nico sings, then experimental form songs like “European Son” and “Black Angel’s Death Song,” then the centerpiece magnum opus “Heroin.” It’s a coherent piece of work, so I think that’s the thing to listen to.

It’s also got “Venus in Furs,” which is such an unprecedented thing in pop music, if you can call the Velvets that. To record something so sinister, so dark—“horror” in music prior to this was goofy stuff like “Monster Mash.”

It’s a remarkable song. I had read Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s book Venus in Furs in college as I was becoming aware of the Velvets, so I knew what [Lou Reed] was riffing on for its subtext. But sonically, it’s really the place where the band found its sound, maybe more than any other song. The concept of the drone, the R&B chord progressions, the dark content and the performative element that Lou brings to that, the trancelike African-influenced drumming. It all fused and became inextricable. It’s the place they’d been trying to get to since 1965, where the ingredients all worked.

What’s a deep cut that you were happy to include?

I love having sections of two long live stage songs that are basically improvisational: “Melody Laughter” and “The Nothing Song.” They’ve been released on the boxed sets, and put you in what a concert experience would be like, with Nico wailing and improvising with her voice. They are hypnotic and enveloping, and cinematically they proved to be beautiful pieces for certain passages to help layer information.

Your film gets into Lou Reed’s younger years, and being queer. I came of age in the late 1980s/early 1990s, when “Walk on the Wild Side” was ubiquitous on classic rock radio (and even included in a Honda ad), and his New York album was something of a hit. Looking back, I feel like a dunce—but I’ll admit that as a straight kid, Lou’s queerness went over my head. Do you think rock marketing of the time tried to hide it?

That’s what happens culturally, period. The edges drain away as music becomes incorporated into the culture and canonized.

People didn’t think of Freddie Mercury as gay—and the band is called Queen! And he’s singing in falsetto, prancing around in flaming veils or a ‘70s Castro mustache and jumpsuit. You could be screaming gay signifiers to certain audiences, but rock ’n roll culture—I mean, yes, in a way, rock ’n roll doesn’t have to have a label. But you are losing something if you don’t understand that additional edge to the music. The additional risk that the artist took to make it, especially when it was so radical at the time.

This was very important for me to put back into context—more than anyone in the band’s specific sexual practice. You also can find this idea in my film Velvet Goldmine, that you can mince around on stage and still not know what they do in bed. You know what they do on stage, and the ideas they bring into their work, and how they circulate their work. So as with the glam rock era, which would not have happened without the Velvet Underground, there was an anti-hetero vibe about everything.

And this is pre-Stonewall, at a time when this is a legal risk.

But it’s beyond gay bars, beyond sex. A way of standing outside a series of norms. An antithetical, transgressive idea about sexuality. It wasn’t about liberation. It wasn’t about getting legislative rights passed for the homosexual to be allowed to get married, or anything like that. It was about celebrating darker ideas.

I loved the moment where Jonathan Richman explains what seeing the Velvets were like, and how when a song finally ended there were five seconds of silence before the applause, because the band hypnotized the audience. What are some examples you’ve experienced with art where, when it was over, you were just unable to react?

It doesn’t happen a lot. That moment of astonishment…certainly after first seeing A Clockwork Orange or 2001: A Space Odyssey. When you witness something so complete, that so entirely uses its medium, and pushes buttons you don’t understand. Those things you can’t comprehend are what change society and change art, but you simply do not have an immediate reaction.

Another witness in your film, perhaps unexpected for many people, is Jackson Browne, who performed with Nico and was at some Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows. One does not usually associate his music with this scene.

No, not at all.

But it speaks to the influence of this movement in so many unexpected ways.

They inspired every decade that followed. The sense of a New York underground that people were searching for, or trying to remake. Or at least to dress and wear your hair that way.

Their look and style—they could be a band from today. And you can’t imagine glam rock without what they did in New York, then expanded on by Iggy Pop and the Stooges. And I explore that in Velvet Goldmine.

Anything with darker themes started with the Velvet Underground. That’s why Lester Bangs called them the beginning of modern music. However explosive the 1960s were, in many different genres including rock ’n roll, it was for the most part affirmative and inclusive. Even if the Rolling Stones were mangier than the Beatles, they all made you want to get up and dance.

But the Velvets? You didn’t know what to do with your body. Though that scene [in the movie] at the Boston Tea Party, it’s really fun to watch.

That word, “exclusive,” is considered a dirty word today—it conveys elitism. But in a way, the Velvets said if you want to be in this club, you need to work for it. That more welcoming worldview is what ended up on the radio.

And then it took 30 years for the Velvets to get named the number one record of the 1960s by Pitchfork. It’s a remarkable place to ascend to from that relative obscurity, and certainly commercial obscurity.

You mention searching for a New York underground. The film positions the building on Ludlow Street as some kind of charmed location. It’s pretty amazing just how many creative people were in the same spot. These days, do you think IRL oases are still out there?

If they are, I do not know where it is happening. Certainly after COVID. But what you can notice is that we are separated from one another more and more. We revert to our screens, which mediate between people. We don’t date the way we used to; we don’t go to bars like we used to. The way we physically interact is now very different, and there may be a cost to this in artistic movements.

Amy Taubin [a regular at the Factory and longtime curator and critic] spoke about this on a panel the other night. She said “the thing about New York culture in the 1960s is that there were 200 people who were doing it, and that was it!” You would go to a party one night and half the people would be there, then a screening the next and half would be there. A small community with a lot of activity, but a lot of frisson with people rubbing up against each other. And that describes a lot of artistic moments back through history.

It’s a little worrisome. It’s one thing to say “hey, look at this cool video online,” but it’s not the same as hanging out at a gallery.

I know, I [worry] about it, too.

Amy touches upon something similar in the documentary. You look at Warhol’s Empire, an 8-hour film, or John Cale’s early experiments with drones over time. It’s the use of time—the investment of time to do something cool. This is a rare thing now.

There was a different kind of patience, and a different kind of openness. Come on—if you are subject to the immediacy of a like or dislike button, it completely changes the idea that you might be surprised by something, or that the point might be to not know what to do with your thoughts. This is precisely what we were talking about earlier, that silence after seeing a band. When you don’t know what to do, that’s when exciting things happen. You must confront it.

The most amazing art I saw when I was young were things that I didn’t know what to make of, which made me want to learn more. To catch up. The internet should be a place that provides infinite opportunities for young people. I know for me, I needed teachers and curators and elders to guide me a little bit, to say “look at this—and shut up!”

Before I came in this room to talk to you, I had a very nice gentleman stick a Q-Tip up my nose to check for COVID. I am currently wearing a mask, and I am situated on the far end of the room. I must ask if your relationship to your film Safe has changed in any way since COVID.

I have not rewatched it, which is crazy. I have to. A lot of people have rewatched it and written very thoughtful pieces about it. I am, sadly, flattered by the relevance, not that I wished it on our world at all. There’s a lot of genuine pain and alienation in Safe, and you can see the consequences of isolation [in that movie]. I think that’s an important thing to consider as we begin to claw our way out. We just want to survive, and Americans can be resilient and optimistic—but not always that reflective. We lost a lot of amazing people and things, and some reckoning is going to be necessary.

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