Todd Haynes (Los Angeles, 60 years old) argues that it is not enough to be a brilliant filmmaker; your movie must function emotionally and intellectually. Hence its distinctive reformulation of melodrama into poignant feature films that question racism or homophobia. Far from the sky (2002), the series Mildred Pierce (2011) the Carol (2015) were based on the interpretations, deep to transparency, of Julianne Moore, Kate Winslet or Cate Blanchett.
Haynes debuted exposing singer Karen Carpenter’s anorexia in a film shot with barbies. Since then he has traveled an intrepid second musical path that continued in the fanciful, at times pathetic, revision of glam-rock Velvet Goldmine (1998), and astonished in the acting split with which he multiplies Bob Dylan in I’m Not There (2007). His first documentary, The Velvet Underground, acclaimed in Cannes, offers an overwhelming immersive experience in the existence of the band sponsored by Andy Warhol, extended to the art scene that in the sixties sprouted from the New York underground.
The Velvet was repudiated by the industry and the counterculture, so there are no films of their concerts, but they appear in the demystifying films that Warhol shot at the Factory. Consequently, Haynes explores American experimental cinema (Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, Jonas Mekas, etc.) and uses it as a glue for the story. The interviews thus progress through a pulsating audiovisual kaleidoscope. And the music sounds forceful, three-dimensional, renewed; John Cale defines it as a sound that agreed “elegance and brutality”. The feeling is not historicist, but presentist. Are you there.
Question. There is an evolution, in his musical films, that goes from fantasy and analytical fiction to reality.
Answer. Yes, but they were inspired by different feelings, they are very different stories and styles. Bowie created his characters inspired by Warhol. Velvet Goldmine it’s fiction, but it’s based on how Bowie built his persona. And the same Dylan, who lived through different phases and then was denying his different people, in order to survive his incredible fame. They were artists who explored the mutability of identity. On The Velvet Underground it all comes out of archival material and creativity of the time in New York.
P. Bowie’s refusal to give up his songs forced Velvet Goldmine to deviate from the biography.
R. The project was from the beginning like this. Those who have gone through different musical phases bring their memories and their musical experience, difficult to clarify. Best reaction to Velvet Goldmine It was that of those who had not lived through the time, young people who were exposed to music and the period and saw it as a kind of fairy tale, which allowed them to imagine it without comparing it with reality. It is a carefully documented film, grounded in things that happened, but also in the brilliant input from the audience glam. This gave me a lot of freedom.
P. Did Dylan pronounce on the prodigious I’m Not There?
R. When it premiered, he said nothing, he gave it his own space. In later interviews he was very flattering and accepted the liberties we take. And he stressed how impressed Cate Blanchett had been.
P. Although the rock repertoire is already in common use, few directors use it correctly: Wenders, Scorsese, Tarantino. What is the secret?
R. I admire the instinct of all of them. Sometimes it is about not being faithful to the time and place where the music comes from, but my films are something else, they are about specific artists. Scorsese is especially notable for his complex sensibilities. The soundtrack of Casino, extremely bold, does not try to fit in with the time and place of the film. He uses it as an underlying emotion and sometimes as a counterpoint to what happens in the scene. It shows different layers to the viewer so that he can read a scene against it, and contribute his own memory of the music, in an interesting dynamic with the images.
P. The Velvet Underground shows the group improvising, taking us to another level of perception.
R. Everything in the film is based on the music and that inexplicable sound that incorporated the content in a way that you feel viscerally. Lennon said that it was not necessary to understand Dylan’s lyrics to know what he wanted to express. The Velvet Underground are a clear example of this, and we wanted to show their improvisations, songs like The Nothing Song and Melody Laughter, hypnotic events that surpass any category of rock, extensive musical meditations that only a certain audience could see live.
P. Time stood still in Warhol films and Velvet improvisations. A reaction to the incipient speed of consumer culture?
R. What is interesting about Warhol’s art projects as conceptual endeavors is that he accepted consumer culture and used it in the context of his work, which raised all kinds of questions about what art is. The Velvet did not reflect it in the same way, but rejected in the theme of their songs the way in which the counterculture tried to impose a purity hippy on the idea of mass media. They understood that we cannot live apart from that mass culture that surrounds us, that as a society we are corrupt, and instead of pretending that we can live organically out of that fascination, that poisoning, they immersed themselves in a feeling of guilt that, as a society , we all shelter. They said they were going to annul his life, to behave antisocially, to self-destruct. This caused that they were not understood in their day.
P. The emerging art world of New York in the early sixties, and the fruitful underground cinema of the time, form the landscape in which the band is situated.
R. Before being called The Velvet Underground they already played in the multimedia events of the Cinémathèque, and then they performed with Warhol film screenings about them. They had that amazing cinematographic activity in front of and behind. This material seemed to be waiting for me as a context in which to present the music. Those extraordinary images, not all Warhol-style, as we used a wide and exciting variety of filmmakers, were an irresistible way to tell the story.
P. Lou Reed passed away in 2013, so the central figure is John Cale. However, in the end he is paid an emotional tribute. Did you want to explain it in all its complexity?
R. That was the goal and it was definitely a challenge, as Lou’s centrality in the band is indisputable, and the fact that he wasn’t there was something we had to deal with. We interviewed the survivors and used audio of relevant interviews with him. He didn’t talk much about the Velvet so we used what we could find. His voice is heard, and is very present in the photographs of the time. We finally came across a video from 1974 where he appears chatting with Warhol. Something very special.
P. Some critics miss sex and drugs. Would you have delved into that aspect of making the film before current Puritanism?
R. The film is not about that, but about artistic creation and how the sensibilities of those artists mixed and created a scene. It also tries to explain that sensitivity. There is talk of Heroin, the meaning of the song, its origin and context. And we see that a young Lou Reed was already taking drugs in high school. But, when asked to the interviewees, they rejected the question; because it is something quite obvious and not the reason for your creativity. His music is about many other things, but a drug like heroin helped Reed and Cale escape the world and isolate themselves. And amphetamine fueled that incessant artistic production. The drugs propelled creative performance, and then caused breakdown, distortion of that energy, and hostility among the band members.
P. It shows Warhol’s environment as an attractive world, ignoring the coldness of the character, internal conflicts and premature deaths. Curious, because he loves melodrama.
R. I think the movie challenges those ideas about Warhol. Lou Reed himself felt that he had been more cruel to Warhol than Andy ever was to him. Andy created an environment of acceptance despite his distant figure, and his childlike innocence translated into enthusiasm for everything around him. I would say that the people who were by his side at the time did not know someone cold, but someone who accepted and encouraged them, even if he hid it. So he was someone who could also disappear behind the mask and handle that multi-personality so eager for attention.
P. What does the film contribute to the history of the band?
R. The way that idea of pop, of camp, a kind of sensitivity queer, permeated the Factory and the New York scene in general, and the impact it had on Velvet’s attitude and critique of the dominant West Coast counterculture. They stayed away from it and, to a large extent, this had to do with what queer. It seemed important to explain it to me.
The Velvet Underground premieres October 15 in theaters and on AppleTV +.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.