CANNES, France – Todd Haynes has directed a thorough and entertaining film about The Velvet Underground, the sixties rock band that was managed by Andy Warhol and headlined by Lou Reed.
Haynes, whose film was produced by Christine Vachon (theirs being a successful collaboration over the years, ever since she produced “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” in 1987 that Haynes directed), cuts scenes from live shows with talking heads interviews occasionally layering the image with hallucinatory visuals to lend his film its sixties bonafides.
Warhol managed the band, thus absorbing it in his art collective The Factory. As one interviewee says about the interest for the band when they went on tour, “they invited Andy and the band was the art,” although maybe this was meant more as complaint than grateful praise.
Warhol envisaged the band as a means to combine art, music and cinema. And Reed went along with it, which is strange because Reed was his own Warhol, he was the frontman, one of the original founders of Velvet Goldmine. But maybe he was a pragmatist, too. And he likely also admired Warhol. But it does not matter. The Velvet Underground’s music endures to this day on the strength of its artistic worthiness. Their songs are regularly reprised, added to soundtracks and the band counts devotees in every country.
Haynes, who was previously at the Cannes Festival with “Carol,” starring Cate Blanchett in 2015, has made his first full-length documentary. In 1998 he directed Ewan McGregor and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in “Velvet Goldmine,” about fictional glam rocker Brian Slade.
Using split screen and the occasional visual boom and a trick, Haynes puts this very fascinating band that is the Velvet Underground front and center and Lou Reed at the heart of it. Talking heads include, among others, former band members, John Cale and Maureen Tucker among them, and others such as, Amy Taubin, Richard Mishkin, Lamonte Young and Warhol superstar, Mary Woronov, still exceptionally-beautiful at 77.
Haynes did not go light. I stayed until the end of the credits this morning, they are long and exacting, the screen is packed with names, organizations, associations, foundations, technical departments, music departments, licensing departments, people, it’s a long end-credit sequence.
Same goes with the talking heads, there’s a lot of them and each one gives his or her take on that incredibly rich period in the sixties when American culture got a zap and a kick and a wake-up call and people like Ginsberg spoke out their poems, “The Naked Lunch” was hot and City Lights, opened in 1953, was a gathering place for counter-culture tears and recrimination.
The Velvet Underground surfed on this crest of creativity, both drawing from and feeding it. Lou Reed wanted to make the musical version of the aforementionned “The Naked Lunch” and other books of that era. But he was no hippie. He and his bandmates were the anti-hippies, they dressed in black, looked vaguely menacing and viewed their flower-power cousins with contempt. As Woronov tells the camera, “you don’t change the world by going around wearing flowers in your hair. Do something!”
Reed was inspired, and was inspiring, but he was also bossy and his personality (think spiky) caused many a conflict with others, including with John Cale, who was with the band for a number of years but eventually parted ways with it.
What motivated these people? It’s hard to say, and it probably does not matter anymore. The music, the culture, they’re enshrined in America’s history. But desire isn’t always what you expect it to be.
At the beginning of “Velvet Underground” someone lets on that Reed had declared, early on, “I want to be rich and I want to be a rockstar.” How modern! Let’s make it into a painting.
It’s worth repeating, a lot of work manifestly went into the making this film. “Velvet” was done with utmost care and an attention to details, it’s well-balanced, there’s no single point of view or preferential treatment or obscure tangents that only a committed fan would understand–at least, that was my takeaway. Many documentaries were made about this period of our history, and about this band, personalities from the sixties. But I felt sated after watching this, like I’ve got a pretty good handle on things now. So, and I’m going out on a limb here but, Haynes has in my eyes made the definitive documentary about The Velvet Underground.