Even if your knowledge of The Velvet Underground begins and ends with the famed album cover from the band’s 1964’s debut, “The Velvet Underground & Nico” – an Andy Warhol print of a banana – Todd Haynes makes you want to learn more.
The director (“The Velvet Goldmine,” “Carol”) has culled a captivating portrait of a band revered not for massive hits, but an audacious attitude that meshed seamlessly with 1960s-era New York City.
“The Velvet Underground,” which debuts Friday on Apple TV+, intentionally sidesteps interviews with other artists or talking heads, but it does boast the participation of Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale, drummer Moe Tucker and Merrill Reed Weiner, sister of mercurial frontman/guitarist Lou Reed, who died in 2013.
Haynes, who first engaged with the project in 2017, spoke with USA TODAY about his bold artistic decisions for the film, as well as the ongoing influence of the art-rock band.
Q: Your background certainly showcases your love of music, especially “The Velvet Goldmine.” But what was it about The Velvet Underground that made you want to delve into their history?
Todd Haynes: I was a huge fan of the music, the band, the era. It was the prequel for (Haynes’ 1998 film) “The Velvet Goldmine” because the character that Ewan McGregor plays (Curt Wild), people kind of characterized him as an Iggy Pop-esque character because he physically resembled him. But he was really an amalgam of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. That American component and proto-punk music coming out of the late-‘60s was a necessary ingredient for glam rock. The glam of it all was very English, but it needed that grit.
Q: Was John Cale always on board?
Haynes: He was aware of how we started (the project). I wanted to film (avant-garde filmmaker) Jonas (Mekas, who died in January 2019) right away and considered him very precious cargo in this film. Otherwise, it was really about John’s approval and agreement to participate and wanting to hear from him before we started interviews with anyone.
Q: He summed up the band rather perfectly with his comment about the standard being set for how to be elegant and how to be brutal. Is that how you saw The Velvet Underground’s music?
Haynes: Well, that and a lot more. There’s many things John says (about the band) – how to combine (German composer) Wagner with R&B and maintain an avant-garde sensibility, but apply that to the street in the context and lyrical components Lou Reed was composing. Collapsing high and low culture, high-end ideas with gritty rock ‘n’ roll. All of them found their way to each other in this music and in this collection of unlikely people from very different places; half were from Long Island and the other half from Europe and it was all taking place in the bosom of this unique time.
Q: You never met Lou Reed?
Haynes: No, I’d see him skulking around New York at art openings but never had the courage to go up to him.
Q: His sister Merrill really provides a lot of insight into how Lou grew up. How did you get her to dance on film?
Haynes: She just demonstrated the “ostrich dance” and I said, “Show us!” and she was delighted to do. She was initially wary, but I wanted to include the stories circulating about (Lou’s) shock therapy and how he used it to gain some sympathy and street cred to say, “My parents were trying to shock the gay out of me.” That became the assumed perspective, and I think (Merrill) has every reasonable expectation to believe it was more complicated than that. Their parents might not have been singularly homophobic, but they were concerned about this kid for lots of reasons like using a lot of drugs. The standard practice back then for dealing with a lot of these things was shock treatment and that’s what they (chose to do).
Q: Has Merrill seen the movie?
Haynes: Yes, she was so moved. I saw her at the premiere and she was sobbing through the movie and it really touched her. I can now consider myself a member of the Reed family. This would have been a different movie if Lou were alive… I would have given anything to have Lou be part of it, but we had to think of ways of finding footage of him and postponing our access to him (in the film) until the end with Andy (Warhol).
Q: A few people make comments about Lou’s temperament, saying that he was insecure and like a 3-year-old. Did any of these disclosures surprise you?
Haynes: They surprised me about how clearly they were being manifested so early on in Lou. And that continued to be the way that people would talk about Lou Reed, particularly journalists who had a challenging time interviewing him. But well before that you were seeing stuff like how defiantly he would act out his swish-iness and play up his queer affectations to shock his father.
Q: Talk about some of your artistic choices, like frequently using screen test shots of the band members (from Andy Warhol’s studio, The Factory) as the primary focal point and also, not having any traditional performance footage until the end.
Haynes: The latter is that there is no performance footage during the years they were putting out records and I was never really interested in flashing forward to the (1993) reunion tour. We really were making a decision to focus on the time and place. I wanted the film itself to show the audience that they could discover what was unique for themselves. As for those screen tests, you feel like the person is there witnessing their own story told in a documentary. You feel like they’re alive, breathing, existing right in front of you.