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. He was a mix of Lou Reed, Iggy Pop. That American component and proto-punk music coming out of the late-’60s was a necessary ingredient for glam rock. 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. It was really about John’s approval, consenting to take part and wanting to hear his thoughts before we began 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. That’s how you saw The Velvet Underground music.
Haynes: Well, that and a lot more. John has many things to say about the band. He talks about how to combine Wagner (German composer) with R&B, while maintaining an avant-garde sensibility. But he also explains how to apply that sensibility to the street in context and lyrical elements Lou Reed composed. The band combines high and low culture, high-end concepts with gritty rock ‘n roll.
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 dancing on film?
Haynes: She just demonstrated the “ostrich dance” and I said, “Show us!” and she was delighted to do. Although she was initially wary, I wanted to share the stories about Lou’s shock therapy and how it helped him gain sympathy. Although their parents may not have been homophobic in general, they were concerned about the child for many reasons. They chose to use shock treatment as that was the standard way of dealing with many of these issues back in those days.
Q: Has Merrill seen the movie?
Haynes: Yes, she was so moved. She was sobbing throughout the film when I saw her. It really touched her. I now consider myself to be a Reed family member. If Lou had been alive, this would have been an entirely different movie. 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. These revelations surprised you?
Haynes: They surprised me about how clearly they were being manifested so early on in Lou. People continued to talk about Lou Reed in this way, especially journalists who were having trouble interviewing him. You were already seeing things like his defiant swagger and his quirkiness 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. It was a conscious decision to be focused on the moment and the place. The film was meant to be a way for the audience to discover their own uniqueness. Screen tests are like the person being filmed as they tell their story in a documentary. It’s as if they are alive and breathing right in front you.