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Todd Haynes’s revelatory documentary The Velvet Underground is the latest in a long career of portraying outsiders. By Keva York.

Filmmaker and director Todd Haynes

Director Todd Haynes.
Credit: Courtesy of Apple

The Velvet Underground took their name from a paperback study of sexual deviance said to have been plucked from a gutter by Tony Conrad, the minimalist musician in whose Ludlow Street loft Lou Reed and John Cale first played together. Brooding anti-showmen, all standoffish monochrome and shades, the band were conspicuous in their maladjustment to mid-’60s America. They were as removed from the dominant peace-and-love counterculture as they were from respectable society.

Between the mesmeric seesawing of Cale’s viola and Reed’s laconic, sleazoid lyrics about transactional sexual encounters and lowlifes looking for a fix, The Velvets, as critic Ellen Willis noted, “were the first important rock’n’roll artists who had no real chance of attracting a mass audience”. Theirs was instead the Andy Warhol-anointed sound of the New York City avant-garde, characterised by its amphetamine-charged attack on the limits of music, film, art and gender – and, some argued, decency.

That there has been no full-scale documentary about The Velvet Underground despite their indelible influence – the band’s propulsive pop-squall contains the origins of punk, glam rock and shoegaze – is undoubtedly related to a dearth of footage. Most of what does exist was shot by Warhol during his stint as their manager – notably, a handful of screen tests, as part of his 1963-66 series of moving portraits – before he was fired in 1967 by the combustible Reed, who was smarting from the deficient response to their debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico.

With the encouragement of Laurie Anderson, Reed’s widow, Todd Haynes finally picked up the challenge. The Velvet Underground, now out on Apple TV, is the first documentary from the affable American filmmaker, who initially carved a niche as one of New Queer Cinema’s golden boys in the ’90s. To skim the titles that make up Haynes’s body of work since then is to come away with the impression of a chameleonic filmmaker, one possessed of omnivorous appetites. Against contemporary ideas about what makes an auteur, he has traversed a range of genres and styles in mapping his particular obsessions.

He first came within the orbit of mainstream film culture with the Sirkian suburban melodrama Far from Heaven, released in 2002; then in 2007 came the deconstructed Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There, followed by the simmering lesbian romance of 2015’s Carol. His last project, Dark Waters, took the form of a legal thriller.

“I hope to challenge myself each time and explore different kinds of languages in film,” says Haynes, now 60. “My films have generated discrete audiences that don’t necessarily cross over; they’ve sliced into different parts of the world – even though I see a lot of commonality.”

He’s speaking to me during the New York Film Festival, where The Velvet Underground played for the first time to a home crowd following its Cannes premiere. “You felt that New York familiarity with the material, and with the humour,” he says. “And then we had a really fun party.”

Haynes does, however, have a clear affection – and flair – for dramatising the lives of musical greats. He made his singular debut in 1988 with a Karen Carpenter biopic starring hand-manipulated Barbie dolls – embodiments of the hyper-feminine ideal that possessed Carpenter as both a woman and a public figure, which manifested in the anorexia that would lead to her early death. In a morbidly comic touch, the “Karen” doll gets whittled down as the narrative progresses. Mattel was unsurprisingly displeased. So was Richard Carpenter.

Velvet Goldmine (1998), a libidinal fan-fiction mash-up of glam rock history, staged a love affair between David Bowie analogue Brian Slade and Curt Wild, a ringer for Iggy Pop with lashings of Lou Reed. I’m Not There would take the opposite tack, splitting its subject into six distinct characters, each a freewheelin’ riff on a facet of Dylan’s life and career, and each played by a different actor.

“Many different kinds of music play an important part in my life, and in my creative imagination,” Haynes says, when asked about his affinity for musical subjects. “But to actually want to make a film about an artist, there’s usually something more than that – it probably has to do with when they mirror a distinct cultural moment, or have a role in changing it.” The Velvet Underground holds the band up as one such mirror – just as the marble-cut Nico sang, in a rare tender song written for her by Reed.

Haynes approached the documentary as an opportunity to bring the subculture that birthed The Velvets into focus. “Part of the excitement about making this film was that we did not have the traditional materials that you would have around a rock documentary,” he says. “What we had instead was this incredibly unique world of avant-garde cinema that this band was so uniquely bound up in.”

The Velvet Underground is a kinetic patchwork fashioned largely from this canon – “a body of work that’s increasingly vanishing, [like] an endangered planet”, says Haynes protectively. Mostly through split screens à la Chelsea Girls, La Monte Young’s mystical–mathematical “dream music” meets Empire, Warhol’s film debut; Kenneth Anger’s dreamy biker-toughs meet the cool gaze of Lou Reed’s Screen Test – each juxtaposition illuminating “one artist informing the other”.

These jolts from the underground – vital and proudly scrappy, abstract as often as they are fleshy – collide with more familiar documentary elements in tracing what Haynes terms “the etymology of the band”, from diffuse origins to its inception in 1964, through a few contentious personnel changes and four albums to Reed’s departure in 1970.

Haynes frames The Velvets with a level of intentionality that is rare in the mosh of middling rock docs. Forgoing the usual parade of celebrity testimonials, he interviews only people who were there – among them, surviving band members Cale and drummer Moe Tucker, filmmaker Jonas Mekas, patron saint of the New York underground, and impish rocker Jonathan Richman, then a high-school super-fan. Reed, guitarist Sterling Morrison and one-time chanteuse Nico, meanwhile, speak through archival recordings. “I wanted the film to show what made the band unique, rather than have it be told to us,” he says.

Haynes discovered The Velvets in the ’80s while studying art and semiotics at Brown and sometimes messing around on a Casio keyboard. It was “through the backdoor”, he says, insofar as he was already a devotee of Bowie, Roxy Music, Patti Smith – “music that is impossible to conceive of without The Velvet Underground”. “It’s funny the way you almost have this selective, unconscious, weird organisation of things when you’re young,” he muses, “like you’re aware of them in your periphery, but you wait until the moment you’re ready, and then you feel like, ‘Oh my god, it’s connecting to me.’ ”

The prescience of the band’s sound was articulated most famously by Brian Eno, who remarked of their first album that not many people bought it, but everyone who did started a band. “I think there’s real wisdom in that for myself,” says Haynes. “This music made me further turn the engine of wanting to make something, and to include ideas about transgression in my work.”

He began, as many do, with that first album, the band’s Warhol banana-stamped collaboration with Nico: “It felt like an entire dwelling that you enter, you sort of couldn’t take it apart.” A gesamtkunstwerk of song. It’s something akin to this feeling of immersion that Haynes – together with editors Affonso Gonçalves, a key member of his creative coterie since the 2011 miniseries Mildred Pierce, and Adam Kurnitz – strives to generate in The Velvet Underground.

Currently Haynes is delving into jazz history in preparation for Fever, a long-gestating Peggy Lee biopic named for her signature song. He describes how, while watching the recent documentary Billie, he was struck anew by Holiday’s presence. “I was just like, ‘Holy shit, you can’t re-create this’, you know? And I would still say that about clips of Bowie, or Bob Dylan. So I had to take a real detour, through fiction, in telling their stories – I took an aggressively subjective view, and I wanted that to be clear, so people weren’t confusing it with a reality that can’t be replicated.”

The magic of his music biopics – Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story as much as I’m Not There and Velvet Goldmine – derives from this embrace of creative licence, which enables them to flourish where so many flounder or fail. Though brimming with the historical detail Haynes has always relished, each one is fundamentally expressionistic; rather than straight mimesis, his interest is in getting at some kind of ecstatic truth.

Set alongside these earlier films, The Velvet Underground might seem relatively straightforward, one could even say objective, in its account of the group’s genesis and bitter dissipation.

There’s no complement here to the ruddy-cheeked stand-in Christian Bale plays in Goldmine, one of Haynes’s most personal films. He wore his investment on his sleeve in the lead-up to that film’s production: “I was living the glam style, with bright red Bowie hair and platform shoes,” he recalls. “It was something I wanted to feel in my body, and until you really teeter on those elevated shoes and feel the breeze going through your hair and up your midriff … most men don’t know what that feels like.”

No makeover precipitated the making of The Velvet Underground. “I’m too old to pull that shit off,” says Haynes, laughing. “But I feel like I have my fingerprints on this movie so deeply.”

He’s speaking quite literally: editing the film was his 2020 lockdown project. “I used to cut all my early films,” he says, “but I haven’t spent as much time editing a movie of mine since I’m Not There.” And yet his statement is equally true in the figurative sense. The film extends what has proved the primary through line of his body of work: he is consistently a portraitist, both analytical and deeply empathetic, of outsiders.

Some of his subjects court this status, such as Goldmine’s Brian Slade; others have it foisted upon them, such as the housewife played by Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven, trapped in the immaculate hellscape of 1950s Hartford, Connecticut, where her interest in a Black gardener can be only fodder for ugly gossip, or even the corporate defence lawyer Mark Ruffalo plays in Dark Waters, who is ostracised for probing shady chemical dumping practices. In the tradition of social critique wrought by Douglas Sirk and passed down to Haynes by way of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s domestic psychodramas, his characters – whether defectors or outcasts – always figure as the correlatives of an environment revealed to be painfully unforgiving, unhip in its rigidity.

Despite a cultivated oppositional persona, Lou Reed harboured a desire to be embraced by the mainstream. One thinks of the cry, insistently restated, that makes up the outro of “Beginning to See the Light”: “How does it feel to be loved?” It was a desire that eroded his relationship with Cale, who was uninterested in this measure of success. Reed dismissed Cale from the band in 1969, after the release of their abrasive sophomore album, White Light/White Heat – a move that would usher in guitarist Doug Yule (notably absent from the film) and a markedly sweeter sound. But it is The Velvets’ alchemically discordant roots that Haynes, a filmmaker in whose gaze the status quo has never been anything other than stultifying, unearths with the greatest care.

As a map of the underground, a celebration of not just a band but an entire scene – so artistically fecund and anti-heteronormative (the word “queer”, he says, “feels anachronistic for this pre-Stonewall time”) – the film plays almost as a prequel to his earlier Velvet opus. Fassbinder once said, “I would like to build a house with my films. Some are the cellar, others the walls, still others the windows. But I hope in the end it will be a house.” In the house that Haynes has built, The Velvet Underground is an altar.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 30, 2021 as "Notes from underground".

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Keva York is a writer and film critic based in Melbourne / Naarm.