“The Velvet Underground” is most singular in how it resurrects the 1960s downtown New York art scene that birthed and fermented the group. Haynes patiently traces the fertile downtown landscape of Warhol’s Factory, the explosion of queer New York and how Lou Reed and the Velvets were turned on by acts like the experimental drone music of La Monte Young or the subversive poetry of Delmore Schwartz. Art, avant-garde film and music collided. More than anything, the documentary is a revelatory portrait of artistic crosspollination.
“You really felt that coexistence and the creative inspiration that was being swapped from medium to medium,” says Haynes, who notes such localized hotbeds now seem a victim of a digital world. “I crave that today. I don’t know where that is.”
“The Velvet Underground” is Haynes’ first documentary. Previously, he’s made knowingly artificial fictions of great musicians. His “Velvet Goldmine” was a glam-rock fantasia of David Bowie. In “I’m Not There,” rather than attempt the impossible task of finding a single actor who could play Bob Dylan, he cast seven.
“When I was doing research on the Bowie of ‘Velvet Goldmine’ or all the Dylans of ‘I’m Not Here,’ you come across the real thing,” says Haynes. “I always felt like if I’m going to recreate this in a fiction form, I better do something different with it. So you’re not comparing it with the real thing, apples to apples. You’re in a different language, putting it in a different context and the frame is visible."
Haynes never met Reed, who died in 2013. But he saw him a few times at events like the Whitney Biennial (“I was too scared,” he says). Reed gave Haynes his permission to use “Satellite of Love” in “Velvet Goldmine.” Laurie Anderson, Reed’s widow and a filmmaker, endorsed Haynes directing the film, and other estates, like Andy Warhol’s, were supportive.
Footage by Warhol, the only one to previously really document the Velvets, is laced throughout the film. In split screen, the band members’ screen tests for the Factory (usually seen as still photographs) play at length, with Reed or Cale staring provocatively out at you.
“The only film on them is by one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. That’s so rare and weird," says Haynes. "There is no traditional coverage of the band playing live. There’s just Warhol films. We just have art within art within art to tell a story about great art.”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP