The most famous thing ever said about the Velvet Underground – a quote attributed To Brian Eno– is that even if their first album did not sell well, everyone who bought it created a group. But you won’t hear anyone repeat that old saw in Todd haynesis an invigorating documentary about the group. This movie is way too cool for something like that.
Looking at The velvet metro, released on Apple TV + on October 15, it becomes clear that Haynes was born to tell how Lou Reed, John CalÃ©, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker (and, for part of the time, German singer Nico) exploded modern music from 1965 to 1970. Haynes’ love of rock and pop has always been a part of his career, of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story through Golden velvet and I am not here. (It even found its place in a kid-friendly movie Amazed with a Robert fripp needle-drip), in their own way, his films are also all about the charge against the mainstream.
He and the group were also at the tip of the spear during large moves. The Velvet Underground was an integral part of Andy Warhol’s Factory and the birth of multimedia rock extravagance, while Haynes was essential for New queer cinema in the late ’80s and early’ 90s. Haynes opening shots, which mirror WarholâPaul Morrissey Chelsea GirlsâFrom stylish split screens, to its swirling use of disorienting sound, to the doc’s deep dive into 1960s imagery that is both mainstream and avant-garde, The velvet metro is not just a rote recording of what some musicians have accomplished. Unlike many rock documentaries, this is a real movie.
Todd Haynes and I spoke after the film’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 young people now experience cool stuff.
Vanity Fair: I first saw this film when Cannes announced its list. I saw âa documentary on the Velvet Undergroundâ and then I saw your name and I said, âOh, shit, this is a real movie! “
Todd Haynes: [Laughs] Yes.
Did you have a list of this not to make sure it wasn’t just another rock doc?
Of course, and those limitations were really useful creative drivers. I wanted the movie to be about the time and place, which immediately determined that I wouldn’t interview countless people – even fantastic and talented people – about how the Velvets influenced them, which they mean for society, all that. I feel like I heard that; this is what you expect.
So that meant I had to see who’s still there and get them. In some cases this meant getting them quickly, like [avant-garde filmmaker and cofounder of New Yorkâs Anthology Film Archives] Jonas Mekas, who had just turned 96.
Some of the other things that weren’t there were less my own decision, and just what comes from the Velvet Underground. There is very little concert footage from the band. Certainly not the concert sequences you associate with doc rock; no promotional stuff or interviews.
Not a lot of backstage chatter, but there is a lot of factory footage.
Law. Instead, there is some amazing stuff that no other band in the universe has in their lineup. It took me straight into the avant-garde world in New York City.
Everyone has heard of the Velvet Underground, but not everyone has heard its music. Where would you direct a noob to go for their first song?
It’s so hard for me. Each album is so intensely distinct. The first recording [The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1967]- the best known and the most influential – it contains hard rock songs, then ballads that Nico sings, then experimental songs like “European Son” and “Black Angel’s Death Song”, then the centerpiece of the magnum opus “Heroin”. It’s cohesive work, so I think it’s the thing to listen to.
There’s also âVenus in Furs,â which is something unprecedented in pop music, if you can call the Velvets that. Recording something so sinister, so dark – “horror” in music before that was goofy stuff like “Monster Mash”.
It’s a remarkable song. I had read LÃ©opold von Sacher-Masoch’s book Venus in fur in college as I became aware of the Velvets, so I knew what [Lou Reed] was riffing for his subtext. But sonically, this is really where the band found their sound, maybe more than any other song. The concept of the drone, the R&B chord progressions, the dark content and the performative element Lou brings to it, the trancelike African-influenced battery. Everything has merged and has become inextricable. This is the place they’ve been trying to go since 1965, where all the ingredients worked.