2021 is shaping up to be a superlative year for documentaries.
Perhaps not unusually, a couple of noted filmmakers have turned their talents to making first-time music themed documentaries. Earlier this year Edgar Wright rolled out “The Sparks Brothers” and now Todd Haynes presents “The Velvet Underground,” which opens in select theaters and via streaming Friday, October 15.
“We always say to each other maybe we don’t work together next time but somehow we always fall back,” says cinematographer Ed Lachman.
Lachman has worked with Haynes on his narrative films since 2002’s “Far From Heaven.” The director-cinematographer partnership over the last two decades has netted Lachman Oscar cinematography nominations for “Far From Heaven” and “Carol.”
Haynes has made a documentary that illuminates the dynamic of the titular band, covers their beginnings in the early-60s at Syracuse University, and follows their evolution over the next ten years.
No stranger to themes of rock music Haynes has directed “Velvet Goldmine” and “I’m Not There.” The latter film is Lachman’s personal favorite.
Gestalt of the era
“Todd has put you in the time but he also puts you in the gestalt of what it felt like to live then,” says Lachman in a phone interview.
“He creates a world that you can enter.”
Haynes made the decision to only use footage and people that were part of The Velvet Underground scene between 1963 and when they broke up.
“It’s the way he situates The Velvet Underground in the cultural environment of the times. You had all those experimental filmmakers like Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, Jack Smith, the Kuchar Brothers, and Shirley Clarke who I worked with in later years,” says Lachman.
“That allowed for the fermenting of cultural energy merging with the art world and Andy Warhol and the pop movement. It was a movement away from abstract expressionism. They talked about materialism, the media, high and low art. That created the whole sensibility of what The Velvet Underground was.
Lachman shot the interview segments using both 8mm film and digital cameras.
“I referenced the screen tests Warhol made with a Bolex and one-light source. The other reference was his celebrity silkscreens. He did these flat color palettes of different colors laid over each other,” says Lachman. “I used lenses from that period. I wouldn’t zoom. I would find the frame, like a Warhol screen test
Working with two editors and untold hours of stock footage Haynes found an authenticity in the images to support his narrative. Some of the interviewees include Amy Taubin; John Cale; Maureen Tucker; Merrill Reed-Weiner, Lou’s sister; various friends and girlfriends from college; actress Mary Woronov, herself a Warhol superstar; Danny Fields, himself the subject of a rockumentary from 2016 titled “Danny Says;” John Waters; Jackson Browne; and Jonathan Richman among others.
Songs for Drella
Working on “The Velvet Underground” brought Lachman full circle in his involvement with members of the group.
“Three years after Andy Warhol died Lou Reed and John Cale wrote an homage, which they performed at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music].” Lachman shot it and directed the performance for the British network Channel 4.
“Songs for Drella” was released in 1990 on laser disc and VHS.
“It’s kind of like a rock opera. I found the original A and B rolls after years of looking in England. Only I found them at a lab in New York.
“I went back to WB who mastered the original tracks and they found the mix tracks that Lou and John had supervised,” says Lachman.
“It now has the best sound and picture.” The restored version of “Songs for Drella” has unwound at the recent Telluride and New York Film Festivals
“It was always the two of them on stage, so I made a decision not to incorporate the audience. Lou was very adamant saying he didn’t want a camera between himself and the audience,” recalls Lachman.
We bonded when I suggested we shoot the rehearsals and one night of performance. Otherwise we wouldn’t be anywhere near the stage. They wore the same clothes they wore while performing so it allowed me to have the cameras moving intimately in rhythm with the performance on dolly tracks.
“I could be close to them and the point of view became more about them with each other than with an audience. It’s the last original material that Lou and John wrote,” adds Lachman.
“The Velvet Underground” is streaming exclusively on Apple TV+ and will play theatrically at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston November 4 – 6