Todd Haynes is revered today as one of the leading pioneers of the New Queer Cinema movement, but he should also be known for his startlingly innovative marriage of visual storytelling with musical expression across his four-decade-long career. From his controversial underground debut feature on the tragedy of Karen Carpenter to his kaleidoscopic character study of the many personas of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, he has somehow managed to execute multiple films about music history without ever falling into the clichés of the musical biopic genre so definitively lampooned in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.
His most frequent visual collaborator is Edward Lachman, one of my personal favorite working cinematographers. He is responsible for the indelible visual look of five of Haynes’ films (along with his HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce), two of which earned him Academy Award nominations: Far From Heaven in 2003 and Carol (which, in my ever-so-humble-opinion, he should have won) in 2016. He has been involved in the lighting and camerawork of several documentaries – Don’t Blink, Collapse, and Soldiers of Music among them – but this is the first time he has worked with Haynes on one: The Velvet Underground, the first feature-length documentary chronicling one of the seminal pioneers of American alternative, punk, and new wave rock.
The experience of this collaboration was a truly special one for him, “There is an authenticity to his narrative films. Each one places you in the setting these characters occupy. With this documentary, he had to go in the opposite direction, since there wasn’t a lot of good [photographic] material on The Velvet Underground. He had to heighten the unreality and the milieu and influences from artists like Jonas Mekas and Bruce O’Connor. He layered pop art with cultural and media touchstones to help the viewer understand who they were and how they shaped the era.”
This was the challenge in producing a comprehensive documentary about one of the most influential musical groups of the postwar era, by the way – unlike The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, there is almost no decent archival footage of their concerts or recording sessions. The challenge of putting together an account of this band with such scant visual material is obvious for an editor, but it also presents challenges for a D.P.
Or, if you’re a D.P. like Lachman, opportunities: “We decided to come up with something that was a visual metaphor in the interviews that would complement what the archival footage we had presented.”
Immediately my mind went to the split screens of slowed-down test footage of Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, and John Cale’s faces alongside imagery evoking what they were describing in voiceover, and reading my mind, he confirmed that “the screen tests were an important part of that. Todd was playing with minimalism, so it was important for me to match the lighting of the screen tests so they had a natural ‘feel’ to them for the audience.” These split screens often expanded to four, six, and nine simultaneous images flooding the viewer with the glimpses of life for this perpetually-struggling band of young artists hungry to push boundaries and rebel against tired convention. This positions it as a companion piece to a film that directly inspired members of the band, including lead singer Nico herself. If you’re a longtime fan of them, you already know what I’m referring to. Lachman certainly did, “with Chelsea Girls, there would be split screens. There was different information in each one. So I used different framing to facilitate them being moved to communicate different things to the audience.”
Though the movie utilizes contemporary interviews to provide context to the past, Haynes and Lachman were very determined to ensure the visual identity of The Velvet Underground remained in the time period they played a major part in defining. This also included evoking the profound influence of their former manager and one of their most important artistic collaborators Andy Warhol. “His silk screen printing, using photographic images of Debbie Harry and Marilyn Monroe and laying them over different rows… I played around with that in the background and used it as a background color scheme.” That artwork “informed how I shot the interviews.”
The team was instructed by Haynes to only utilize footage and photographs from 1963-73 for all scenes except for the contemporary interviews and epilogue. They were all on the same page with “showing the cultural influences of the time. We show Jonas Mekas. He uses all the elements that created the band, like the pop art movement.”
For Lachman, working on this documentary was the culmination of his own personal relationship not only to the band, but to the entire cultural movement they were a huge part of. “I shot [Lou Reed and John Cale’s] Songs for Drella, a collaborative tribute to Andy Warhol and the relationship he had with them through their music.” It ended up being key to helping Haynes finalize the cinematic identity of this documentary. “[The tribute] was a success in England but it took nearly thirty years to find the original negative and restore it. We showed it at Lincoln Center and the reception was incredible.”
Despite being instructed to not shoot Songs for Drella in any way that telegraphed his presence, Lachman “offered to shoot rehearsals which found intimacy and could move around and captured the feeling of exploring the musical interplay between John and Lou.” This experience shooting these volatile and fascinating artists during one of the last times they ever collaborated made shooting The Velvet Underground documentary an especially poignant experience for Lachman; an opportunity to properly portray their influence to new generations who are probably not aware of how important they have become even to today’s contemporary artists.
“They maybe only sold a few thousand records but they were the inspiration for thousands more artists and musicians since.”