The Oscar-contending documentary The Velvet Underground, about the influential 1960s avant-garde rock band fronted by Lou Reed, has been praised as a “superb testament to a lost world that helped make our own.”
Those words come from New York Times critic Manohla Dargis, who listed The Velvet Underground as number three among her choice of the year’s best films—fiction or nonfiction (her colleague A.O. Scott also put it on his top 10 list).
The praise not only recognizes the work of director Todd Haynes—the longtime filmmaker who makes his documentary debut with The Velvet Underground—but his collaborators, including editors Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz, and cinematographer Ed Lachman.
Over the course of his long career, Lachman has shot documentaries and scripted films, and earned Oscar nominations for two of Haynes’ dramatic features, Carol (2015), and Far From Heaven (2002). He says he doesn’t alter his approach to photography based on whether a film is fiction or otherwise.
“I have to say, for me, there’s no difference… I always say, in a weird way, all films are documentations, even in a narrative form,” Lachman tells Deadline. “You’re working with an actor, but no performance is ever the same. Where they hit the light, how the camera moves, you’re documenting something in time and space. So, for me, all films are documentation.”
The Velvet Underground inserts the viewer into the visual and sonic milieu from which the band sprang: low-rent Manhattan warrens of the mid-‘60s, where Reed combined energies with musicians John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Moe Tucker, and—for a time—German vocalist and model Nico. They cross-pollinated with experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas and pop artist Andy Warhol and his Factory scene.
Cale, Tucker and Factory star Mary Woronov are among the people Haynes interviewed for the film.
“A combination between Warhol silkscreens and his screen tests informed how I would shoot the interviews,” Lachman explains. “Andy’s screen tests where he would just set up the Bolex and have somebody look in the camera with one light source—that became a touchstone for us. And then the printed silk screens that he did of the movie stars, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and Debbie Harry, Jacqueline Onassis… That’s in the background of all the interviews—we would pick a color for each person. And then I would light it with a gel, like Andy did with the color on their faces that were exactly natural.”
Warhol’s original black and white screen tests appear in the documentary, often in split screen with archival footage. For the editors, that was a Velvet goldmine.
“I can’t tell you enough what a complete gift it was to have those [screen tests],” Kurnitz notes. “It’s such a rare thing to be able to tell the story of a person and then just watch the person the whole time as you’re being told the story of their life or their childhood.”
Reed, in particular, makes for an arresting presence, staring into the camera in those Warhol tests, barely blinking, the split screen next to him occupied with footage from that era.
“It becomes almost interactive because he’s looking at us, he’s looking at the audience,” Gonçalves says of Reed. “He’s staring at you… You listen to what’s being said, and you look at the archival footage and you check with Lou, or you’re just staring at Lou the whole time or Cale or Moe, whoever’s in the screen… It becomes very, very intimate in a way.”
In conversations with his editors, Haynes laid out the intellectual strategy for the film.
“He talked about how important the culture of the time was,” Kurnitz recalls, “that we weren’t just attacking this music doc, that it was a doc about culture of the time, filmmaking of the time and we needed to work to fit The Velvet Underground into the scene that it sort of bubbled out of.”
“The interesting thing,” Gonçalves adds, “is we had those mandates, like the culture of the time has to be incorporated, and it has to be within the visual of diptychs, triptychs and whatever shapes we found. And instead of being constraining, it was actually freeing for us.”
Gonçalves and Kurnitz earned editing nominations for the film from the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards and the upcoming Cinema Eye Honors Awards. The Velvet Underground, from Apple Original Films, is nominated for Outstanding Nonfiction Feature at the Cinema Eye Honors and as Best Music Documentary at next month’s IDA Awards in Hollywood.
The documentary premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last July, with Haynes and Kurnitz among those in attendance.
“[Cannes] was great. The audience really, really loved it,” Kurnitz says. “I will say that showing it in New York, though, was a different experience because Lou is so funny and he’s so funny in a very specifically New York way that the audience here, I think, was much more receptive to his humor. Not that they weren’t in Cannes, but in New York, I mean, it was just a totally different feeling.”
Reed died in 2013 at the age of 71. Lachman worked with him almost 50 years ago.
“I met Lou in ’73, because I did his video promo for [the album] Berlin… He came up to the camera when I was setting it up and he kicked the leg and he said, ‘Do it like Andy,’” Lachman recalls. “I was horrified, shocked, ‘What the hell? My camera.’ And then he went back to the microphone and that was that.”
Years later, Lachman again worked with Reed, on a film built around the 1990 Reed and Cage collaboration Songs for Drella, an album that paid tribute to Warhol. Lachman says he reminded Reed of the earlier incident when the rocker had barked at him.
“I said, ‘You don’t remember this, Lou, but when I did the video promo for Berlin, you came up and kicked my camera,’” Lachman recounts. “And he goes, ‘I don’t remember much from back then.’”
For those who don’t remember, or weren’t around when Reed, Cale and their bandmates were making music as one, The Velvet Underground makes the time come alive again in all its creative fervor.