Todd Haynes’ new film takes us to the Velvet Underground


In 1964, Lou Reed was producing trendy pop singles for the economic label Pickwick Records. At the same time, Welshman John Cale was playing viola in minimalist composer La Monte Young’s musical ensemble. Pickwick believed Reed’s dance song “The Ostrich” had commercial potential, so together they enlisted members of Young’s circle to support him at live promotional concerts, where Cale noticed Reed tuning his six strings. guitar playing on the same note, an experiment in a key that resembled how he layered and extended notes to create sonic drones. Then, Reed showed him some of the other material he was working on, grainy, confrontational songs that took up drug use, sadomasochism, and existential despair as their subject matter.

Cale says he admired Reed’s abilities but felt his potential was wasted, so they began to collaborate and were soon joined by Reed’s classmate Sterling Morrison on rhythm guitar and Maureen “Moe” Tucker in battery. They called themselves the Velvet Underground, their name inspired by a 1963 paperback book describing sexual subcultures.

As the group took shape, neighbor Andy Warhol developed his multimedia work and moved specifically to film, pushing the boundaries of form and content. Shortly after opening his first factory in 1963, Warhol purchased a 16mm Bolex camera, which he used to perform hundreds of “screen tests”. These weren’t typical Hollywood auditions, but rather duration experiences, says film critic Amy Taubin.

At the time, Taubin was an actress and one of Warhol’s guardians. “Warhol looked at your face, then he adjusted a light and the angle of the camera, and he said ‘try not to move, try not to blink’, then he left.”

Inside the camera was a single reel of black and white film, which took about three minutes to reach its final length. When Warhol screened the results, he was slowing the film down to run at a 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, defying the conventions of their respective mediums. “Part of the distance you feel when you watch these movies,” Taubin recalls, “is the fact that people are alive! I mean they’re looking straight into the camera but they’re sort of in a time zone. different schedule. ”

As artists broke boundaries and created expressive new languages, Warhol sang backing vocals in his own short-lived group called the Druds, a collaboration with other artists Larry Poons, Walter de Maria, Lucas Samaras, Patty Mucha ( then Oldenburg), Jasper Johns and La Monte Young. He has also expressed interest in working with pre-folk groups, such as the Fugs and the Holy Modal Rounders, and in forming a unique “girl group” featuring Bibbe Hansen.

Experimental filmmaker Barbara Rubin introduced Warhol to the Velvet Underground and, drawn to the band’s distinctive look and sound, began leading the band in 1966. Warhol offered a few suggestions, such as adding a German model to the band. mix – her name was Nico, and her voice was as striking as her appearance.

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Due to Warhol’s involvement, The Velvet Underground became The Factory’s house group. Warhol paid for recording sessions, became a (nominative) producer and leveraged his fame to take the band on the road with The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a live multimedia “happening” with music, strobes and slides. Sometimes films were shown behind and directly on the group, human “screens” who were all dressed in black. Often, Factory “superstars” Gerard Malanga and Mary Woronov would perform a whip dance to accompany the music. The idea was to put everyone at the center of everything that was happening. “It was wonderful,” Cale recalls, “Jackie Kennedy would be in the audience.”

But Warhol’s ambitions turned out to be too bold for the general public. Several labels refused to sign the group before MGM finally said yes to the release. The Velvet Underground & Nico via its subsidiary Verve, but still dragged its feet to release the album for almost a year. When the first album finally came out, in 1967, it featured a provocative album cover designed by Warhol: a banana peel sticker that could be peeled off to reveal pink fruit underneath.

The content hampered promotion for the record – radio stations refused to broadcast the songs, and court challenges over a photo on the back forced the record company to recall the album as it gained momentum. Sales in the first two years reached tens of thousands, which at the time was considered a business failure. Nico left for a solo career. Reed fired Warhol then Cale, then shifted the songs to a decidedly more radio-friendly sound, reflected in songs like the aptly titled “Rock & Roll”. The Velvet Underground completely dissolved within a few years.

Despite his brief appearance, Brian Eno jokingly said that everyone who heard the Velvet Underground debut album has formed a band. That’s right, says filmmaker Todd Haynes, who credits Velvet Underground with paving the way for glam rock and punk as well as queer and independent cinema. “With all the innovations and extraordinary examples of new ideas circulating in rock and roll, R&B and jazz in the 60s, to be able to speak of a kind of instability of what one feels in relation to the world. and a desire of times to eliminate, to evacuate, to destroy and to cancel, [before the Velvet Underground] we didn’t talk about it, not to mention the sadomasochistic and homoerotic scenarios that were omnipresent in the music and in the stage. ”

After making inventive biopics on Karen Carpenter, the glam rock scene and Bob Dylan, The velvet metro is Hayne’s first musical documentary – but it’s no more conventional than his other work. Instead of the standard “rockumentary” tropes, Haynes uses the language of 1960s experimental filmmaking, such as split screen and editing, to tell the story of the Velvet Underground and the time, place and culture behind it. ‘inspired.

This includes using those old Warhol screen tests, says Haynes, “You can go through the entirety of those screen tests and watch Lou Reed or John Cale or Maureen Tucker or Sterling Morrison literally existing on the movie in front of you. you during this time, while the next screen displays clips, images and stills about their life or things you hear in the audio. ”

In these archival footage, Haynes also highlights the work of other important 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 turned out.

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