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Todd Haynes' new film takes us deep into The Velvet Underground

Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and Moe Tucker from archival photography in a split-screen frame from "The Velvet Underground."
Apple TV+
Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and Moe Tucker from archival photography in a split-screen frame from "The Velvet Underground."

In 1964, Lou Reed was turning out trendy pop singles for the budget label Pickwick records. At the same time, Welshman John Cale was playing viola in minimalist composer La Monte Young's musical ensemble. Pickwick thought Reed's novelty dance song "The Ostrich" had commercial potential, so together they enlisted members of Young's circle to back him at live promotional gigs, where Cale noticed that Reed was tuning all six of his guitar strings to the same note, an experiment in tonality that resembled the way he was layering and extending notes to create sonic drones. Then, Reed showed him some of the other material he was working on, gritty, confrontational songs that took drug use, sadomasochism, and existential despair as their subject matter.

Cale says he admired Reed's abilities but thought his potential was being wasted, so they started collaborating and were soon joined by Reed's college classmate Sterling Morrison on rhythm guitar and Maureen "Moe" Tucker on drums. They called themselves the Velvet Underground, their name inspired by a 1963 paperback depicting sexual subcultures.

While the band was taking shape, nearby Andy Warhol was expanding his multimedia work and moving specifically into film, pushing the boundaries of form and content. Shortly after opening his first Factory in 1963, Warhol purchased a 16mm Bolex movie camera, which he used to perform hundreds of "Screen Tests." These weren't typical Hollywood auditions, but more experiments in duration, explains film critic Amy Taubin.

Back then Taubin was an actress, and one of Warhol's sitters. "Warhol looked at your face, and then he adjusted one light, and the angle of the camera, and he said 'try not to move, try not to blink,' and then he went away."

Inside the camera was a single spool of black and white film, which took about three minutes to run to its final length. When Warhol screened the results, he would slow the film down to run at silent speed, 16 frames per second, a third slower than life. Like Reed's "Ostrich" tuning and Cale's sonic drones, Warhol's Screen Tests were experiments with time, challenging the conventions of their respective mediums. "Part of the distance you feel when you look at those films," recalls Taubin, "is the fact that the people are vivid! I mean they're looking right into the camera but they're somehow in a different time zone."

Moe Tucker, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Lou Reed from archival photography from "The Velvet Underground."
/ Apple TV+
Apple TV+
Moe Tucker, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Lou Reed from archival photography from "The Velvet Underground."

As artists were breaking down boundaries and creating new expressive languages, Warhol sang backup vocals in his own short-lived band called the Druds, a collaboration with fellow artists Larry Poons, Walter de Maria, Lucas Samaras, Patty Mucha (then Oldenburg), Jasper Johns and La Monte Young. He also expressed interest in working with avant-folk bands, such as the Fugs and the Holy Modal Rounders, and putting together a unique "girl group" featuring Bibbe Hansen.

The experimental filmmaker Barbara Rubin introduced Warhol to the Velvet Underground and, drawn to the band's distinctive look and sound, started managing the group in 1966. Warhol offered a few suggestions, such as adding a German model to the mix – she called herself Nico, and her voice was as striking as her appearance.

Because of Warhol's involvement, The Velvet Underground became The Factory's house band. Warhol paid for recording sessions, became a (nominal) producer and leveraged his fame to take the band on the road with The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a live mixed-media "happening" featuring music, strobes and slides. Sometimes films were projected behind and directly onto the band, human "screens" who were all dressed in black. Often Factory "superstars" Gerard Malanga and Mary Woronov performed a whip dance to accompany the music. The idea was to immerse everyone in the center of all that was happening. "It was marvelous," recalls Cale, "Jackie Kennedy would be in the audience."

But Warhol's ambitions proved too edgy for the mainstream. Several labels declined to sign the band before MGM eventually said yes to releasing The Velvet Underground & Nico through its Verve subsidiary, but even so dragged its feet on putting the album out for nearly a year. When the debut was finally released, in 1967, it featured a provocative album cover designed by Warhol: a banana skin sticker that could be peeled back to reveal pink fruit beneath.

The content hindered the record's promotion – radio stations refused to play the songs and legal challenges to a photograph on the back forced the record company to recall the album just as it was gaining steam. Sales in the first two years topped off somewhere in the tens of thousands, considered a commercial failure at that time. Nico left for a solo career. Reed fired Warhol and then Cale, then steered the songs toward a decidedly more radio friendly sound, reflected in songs like the aptly titled "Rock & Roll." The Velvet Underground disbanded completely within a few years.

Despite its brief run, Brian Eno famously quipped that everyone who heard the Velvet Underground's first album started a band. That's spot-on says filmmaker Todd Haynes, who credits the Velvet Underground for paving the way for glam rock and punk as well as queer and independent filmmaking. "With all the innovations and extraordinary examples of new ideas that were circulating in rock and roll, R&B and jazz in the '60s, to be able to talk about a kind of instability of how you feel in relation to the world and a desire at times to eliminate yourself, to evacuate, destroy and annul yourself, [before the Velvet Underground] this wasn't being talked about, let alone sadomasochistic, homoerotic scenarios that were pervasive in the music and in the scene."

After making inventive biopics about Karen Carpenter, the glam rock scene and Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground is Hayne's first music documentary – but it's no more conventional than his other work. In place of the standard "rockumentary" tropes, Haynes uses the language of '60s experimental cinema, such as split screen and montage, to tell the story of the Velvet Underground and the time, place, and culture that inspired it.

This includes making use of those old Warhol Screen Tests, Haynes explains, "You get to live through the entirety of these screen tests and watch Lou Reed or John Cale or Maureen Tucker or Sterling Morrison literally existing on film in front of you for that duration, while the neighboring screen is showing clips and images and stills about their life or things you're hearing in the audio."

In that archival footage, Haynes also spotlights the work of other significant creative catalysts, including filmmakers such as Jack Smith, Jonas Mekas, Marie Menken and Barbara Rubin. However, he's not so much interested in chronicling the past as he is in showing you how the future happened.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allyson McCabe