There is no other band like The Velvet Underground. Because of who created it, because of how it was promoted, because of how it influenced so many different musical genres, because the time and place in which they composed and played. At least this is what the filmmaker Todd Haynes (California, 60 years old) thinks, who has made a documentary entitled as the group, the first of his career, of a band that revolved around the enormous artistic force of Lou Reed and John Cale.
Its premiere in Cannes, before its launch on Apple TV on October 15, has exceeded all expectations. Haynes has understood the material at hand and has put together a film that is as rocky as it is experimental, full of unpublished images and in which no voice is missing: various interviews of Lou Reed have been used, Sterling Morrison is represented by his widow, and filmmaker Jonas Mekas was interviewed before he died.
The screen reflects Haynes’ particular struggle to be able to overcome the main challenge, as he has told the press, which was the commission: “How to make music visible?” Furthermore, how to make visible the enormous energy that Cale and Reed fused together? The tour begins with the rather tortuous childhoods of Cale in Wales and Reed on Long Island. If the former was a viola virtuoso who came to America in pursuit of experimental music in the late 1950s, the latter wanted to be rich and a rock star, as his friends and his own sister recall.
Reed began writing songs for a record company in New York, and one of them, The Ostrich, it had enough potential to create a band around it, Primitives. And in that New York scene was Cale, at a time when the city was an artistic pressure cooker, collaborating with La Monte Young, another huge experimenter. “Today information is so dispersed that it is not necessary to concentrate on one place; art is different compared to the one that was born from those artists who shared premises, neighborhoods, even flats in New York; that was almost a miracle, ”says Haynes. What amazed Cale was that Reed played the guitar in a way that produced a sound similar to drone O pedal, a style of minimalist music that uses sustained or repeated notes over time. That, and his lyrical ambition, born from his readings of Baudelaire and Verlaine, made him a unique artist.
After several name changes (the definitive one came from a book that investigated the sexual subculture of the time) and the entry and exit of some musicians, the classic formation of The Velvet Underground started in 1965 with Reed, Cale, Sterling Morrison, partner Reed’s studio and great guitarist, and drummer Maureen Tucker, sister of a friend of Cale and Reed. Haynes uses the split screen, dives into unpublished recordings, raises testimony of that New York. “The funny thing is that in that environment, with so many people making movies, there are so few recordings of them acting,” says Haynes, who during confinement was working with editor Adam Kumitz and the 600 hours of recording that they accessed. If the music of the band belongs to the Universal record company, the images, the 7,000 photographs and the numerous documents have arrived after years of searching for the producers, to which Haynes added that he asked permission from Laurie Anderson, artist, singer and widow of Reed.
In this way, The Velvet Underground entered the radar of Andy Warhol, who became his representative and convinced them to count on the German Nico, with a voice completely far from the canons, as a singer. As Haynes recalls, “It was a completely out of the ordinary band. In its creation, in its music, in its promotion, in its behavior ”. For the filmmaker, The Velvet Underground “influenced many styles of music, not just rock.”. And as a product of that New York of the sixties, portrayed as the world capital of culture (in the film it is said that no one called it a counterculture, because there was no other), his music has to be portrayed “in the manner of the cinema of vanguard of those years ”. Let the public “feel the process.” Hence, the documentary branches out in different directions, exploring that city at the hands of Cale, who stepped on all the premises and was part of various movements.
Finally, the clash between the two musicians, attended by Morrison and Tucker. “Lou was like a three-year-old who needs everyone to feel as uncomfortable as him,” says Cale, who, although he enjoyed this creative process of protagonist-antagonist, ended up fed up with drugs and out of tune. The Velvet Underground was more than a band, the product of a way of life, the gift born of the “cohabitation between rock and Wagner”, which instead felt out of place elsewhere: on tour in California, Tucker recalls that they saw all those flowers in their hair and could only feel “hatred for hippies.” On the other hand, in Boston, a teenager became his biggest fan: Jonathan Richman tells the camera numerous anecdotes about the band and happily recalls that Morrison taught him to play the guitar.
Haynes has not entered the sexual side of the group, or how the reunion was on the nineties tour. Reed fired Cale in September 1968, prior to the release of a band’s third album. And Reed himself would leave her in August 1970 (curiously, he comments that he earned more, $ 2.79, with the rights to his first song, than with his entire Velvet career). The filmmaker hopes that the film will show what the group was like “elegant and brutal at the same time.” And of course it does, starting and ending with the same song, All Tomorrow’s Parties.