It’s impossible to write about the Velvet Underground without quoting Brian Eno’s adage that their first album may have sold only 30,000 copies, but everyone who bought one started a band. But Todd Haynes’ documentary The Velvet Underground, which is now in theaters and streaming on Apple TV+, isn’t especially interested in them as the forebears of underground rock, or even solely in their music. For Haynes, the story of the Velvets, who formed under Andy Warhol’s aegis in 1964, is also the story of the artistic community that produced and sustained them, a heady mixture of experimental film, pop art, and sexual liberation. The film is a dizzying, sometimes overwhelming collage in which its interview subjects’ voices are just part of the fabric, and their faces are rarely seen. Haynes, whose movies Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There are deeply informed by the music of glam rock and Bob Dylan, isn’t interested in explaining the Velvet Underground so much as transporting the viewer to the time, and more importantly the place, where they first emerged, so you can hear them now as they might have sounded the first time, as if all those bands they influenced never existed. A piano version of “Heroin” and an early, Everly Brothers–esque take on “I’m Waiting for the Man” illustrate what Lou Reed’s songs might have sounded like if he hadn’t met up with John Cale, an avant-garde Welshman who’d come to New York to study with the drone composer La Monte Young.
In the middle of the New York Film Festival, where the movie played at earth-shaking volume to a mesmerized hometown crowd, Haynes sat down with Slate to talk about making the old sound new again, gay culture pre-Stonewall, and the interview that made him cry. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Sam Adams: The best way to sum up how The Velvet Underground is different from a traditional music documentary is that it’s 45 minutes into a two-hour movie before the Velvets played their first note. Was it clear to you going in that this had to be more than just a story about how the band got together, what records they made, and so on?
Todd Haynes: Oh yeah. It definitely was clear that’s what I wanted to do. I thought that would really set the stage, put the viewer in this very interesting, unique place where these kinds of ideas were in circulation and available to these very open and curious individuals. I felt that by doing all of that, you would ideally hear the music in a new and fresh way—which is always the challenge with a band whose music is by now, at least within certain circles, so well incorporated in the culture. The idea was to put you in a trance with the more experimental and avant-garde kinds of music that John Cale in particular was focusing on. We also used stems from the Velvets’ songs, without the vocals, without certain key components of the music, to kind of lure you into it, seducing the viewer into thinking that the core underpinnings of these songs were in the air before they were formed.
Ideally, I wanted to almost make you forget what it is you’re watching, so you’re not sitting there checking off a list, or feeling like you could provide the essay version back to your partner when you go home of what the story of the Velvet Underground is. That this isn’t going to be a typical documentary that’s going to answer all those questions in some objective way, that we’re going to be exploring it from a very subjective, internal way. Because it’s such a weird, strange time that you can’t really separate what they did from what was going on around them.
I’m curious how you decided to approach Lou Reed’s sexuality in the film, given that the way he was identified changed over the decades. In the 1980s, he was in a heterosexual marriage and wrote a whole song about how much he loves women, but a decade before that when Lester Bangs profiled him in the 1970s, he took it as a given that everyone knew Lou Reed was gay.
Really, it was pretty directly delivered and stated as you see in the film, by the people who were around him in high school and college and by his family. It was manifest in his earliest writing and the kind of writers he was drawn to, and the ideas of what kind of sexual life interested him, as a subject, but one assumes also as a pursuit. So Lou’s own sexuality and story is one part of the narrative, but it’s hardly where I was interested in ending my questions about queerness.
These are words that are very awkwardly applied to this time, very revisionist and imprecise. And that’s also one more indication of why this time is so interesting. Because it’s very pre-Stonewall, let alone pre-queer or LGBTQ or whatever. It’s so of a time that was almost defiantly refusing to be categorized. Most of the gay guys I talked to, like Danny Fields, I asked him about gay bars and he was like, “Ew, nobody went to gay bars.” You didn’t want to go to a gay bar to meet gay people. You just hung out with people and most of them were gay. You didn’t have to go to some special place to do it.
Yeah, Lou Reed would take a lot of people out after hours, late after all the parties and other bars closed, to a bar that just had a bottle of Vaseline in the middle of the room and nothing else. No drinks, just a dark room. So there was that. A place to just fuck. There was a club, I think it was in Queens, where the first floor was for gay men and the second floor was for lesbians and then the top floor was for well, whoever else wanted to come. So there were places to go and dance that were segregated. But really what I was so interested in was hearing from people, whether they were gay or not, about this cultural outlook that permeated the way they interacted and what the vibe at the Factory was. A general kind of transgressive idea about sexuality that was led by very out and very comfortable gay men was just omnipresent in New York at the time. You can see that when they go to Los Angeles, where the clash of different underground cult subcultures is so vivid.
In a way, the New York ideal is a different way of framing “free love,” without the hippie trappings that Warhol’s crowd vocally despised.
The sex was sort of performative, but it was as much about ideas and culture and art and movies and music, and a kind of hunger to all be together and do things. It’s just that the most sort of outspoken of a lot of the people were Ondine and other, very witty, very acerbic, gay men. But look, these were also terms that were already being coined around what Popism was about, right? Or what camp was about. So there were intellectual and artistic ways of describing what these aesthetic viewpoints were as well.
You use a tremendous amount of archival footage in The Velvet Underground—the list of source materials takes up seven pages in the press kit—not just interviews or footage of the band but tons of Andy Warhol’s movies, as well as experimental films from Jonas Mekas, Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Shirley Clarke, and many others. It feels like those images are telling a story of their own, one that intersects with the Velvet Underground’s but isn’t just there to illustrate it.
I feel like it was, it sounds so corny, but just a gift for me as a filmmaker to be handed the work of so many different kinds of avant-garde filmmakers who were working outside of narrative forms. This was not ornamental. This was completely intrinsic to the story of how these people met up, who they hung out with, the kind of work they were doing and how they really were the house band for Cinematheque screenings, before they were even called the Velvet Underground. So using that material felt fortified by the narrative and the history. But then once we had the stuff at our disposal, we just went for it. The music becomes visualized. And the culture becomes visualized. Not in a literal, illustrative way, but really the bloodstream of the culture we were trying to show through the films.
It occurred to me about halfway through the movie that you hadn’t once used the traditional documentary setup of, “And here’s what happened on that day.” It’s not really until the show where the band breaks up that you fix us to a specific date and time.
I mean, there are some people for whom this will be frustrating and not what they expect from a documentary. They kind of want that tidier oral history. If you’re interested, there’s all kinds of more stuff to find and discover for yourself. But I wanted it to be mostly that experience where the image and the music were leading you, and then it was a visceral journey through the film.
As someone who’s been listening to him for a long time, the interview with Jonathan Richman is a real highlight of the movie. It makes me hope there’s a Blu-ray someday so you can just release the whole thing as an extra.
Oh, it’s so fucking great. The whole thing is just, it’s a complete piece. I was crying by the end of it.
Was it your idea for him to have the guitar, or did he just bring it with him?
No, he just brought it. And I mean, come on. It was just so generous and so insightful. And he served the purposes of saying things that I had sort of decided I would not include in this movie: fans, other musicians, critics. It was just going to be about people who were there. That was the criteria. Well, he was there, in spades, and I didn’t realize to what degree.
That picture of him as a teenager with the band, I’d never seen that before.
Fucking crazy. But he could also then speak so informatively as a musician and as a critic and as a fan.
What’s so interesting about Jonathan Richman is that he was hugely influenced by the Velvet Underground, to the extent that he wrote a whole song about it. But his music doesn’t sound anything like theirs. Lou Reed is singing about shooting heroin, and Jonathan Richman is singing about snowmen.
He made it his own, whatever it was that turned him on. Which is also what makes his descriptions of them and their specific sounds and the colors within the music so great. He talks about it like a painter. And it’s so beautiful, but it’s also not like his own music.
He says this incredible thing about listening to the first Velvet Underground record and thinking, “These people would understand me.” It’s one of the most powerful feelings you can get from music, especially as a teenager.
It’s also somewhat couched in the obscurity of the band where you do feel like you’ve discovered something that nobody else knows about—which is of course not true. But it almost makes you feel like they’ve found you as well. There is that really weirdly intimate relationship. Although I think that’s true for any music that you end up loving. You find a connection that you feel like, “Oh my God, I wasn’t the person I am until now.”
And what about Maureen Tucker? There are only two living members of the Velvet Underground, so you obviously want to get them both, but she had not been easy to find.
The hard part was just the initial contact with her. I was starting to think she just didn’t want to do it. I got everybody I could on board to try to locate her. We all did. Everyone at Motto [Pictures]. I wrote her a letter. And then all of a sudden somebody called her up and she just picked up and was like, “What? I didn’t get any of these messages. I’d love to do it.” And we were like, “Oh, fantastic, great. Tell us when.” And we made our way out to Georgia. I think it was a little bit bigger crew than she was accustomed to. It wasn’t massive, but it was serious. But she was completely gracious and responsive right away, and she became more relaxed. And then you get to that point where you’re just like, “This is … She’s having a good time talking about this stuff.”
You’ve been listening to the Velvet Underground for a long time, and making this movie for three years. Did that change your relationship to the band? Do you understand them differently now?
I think I do, but I feel like I don’t ever want to completely come out of being sort of lost in it a little bit. Because then you feel like your hunger or your passion goes away, or it’s been transformed into something else. That’s always going to be the case when you make a film about music or an artist that you really love. There’s a transformation that goes on and you ultimately are not the innocent fan that you were. You can’t be. But you realize that what you’re sort of giving up in the process is ideally making it possible for somebody else to become that innocent fan in the thing that you’ve made. I’ve seen that happen in films I’ve made about other musical subjects. But because we were making this during COVID and I was cutting it a lot myself with my two editors, we were very inside it, in the fiber of it. And the images we were working with were abstract and sensual, and it wasn’t about clean, tidy, oral history. So a lot of that original feeling is still there, I think, which I’m happy about.