Edgy rock band the Velvet Underground was an outgrowth of manager Andy Warhol’s avant garde art movement that over time has emerged as one of the most influential groups of the 1960s and ‘70s. It also exerted a powerful influence – particularly in the image crafted in Warhol’s films – on the way filmmaker Todd Haynes presented the group onscreen in the documentary The Velvet Underground.
“What we all felt when we were making this movie is that it was about a really specific time and place that produced this band, in which questions about art, and aesthetics and life and meaning were circulating, and changing what seemed possible,” Haynes, whose narrative films include Carol and Far From Heaven, said at Deadline’s Contenders Film: Documentary, appearing on the panel with editor Adam Kurnitz.
Noting that “a very transgressive kind of subject matter that was being introduced by this band,” Haynes said “We felt that this was something that we’d sort of forgotten: the vitality of it, and the impact of it, and that it was something that was worth reexamining, particularly using, the avant garde films that were so important to this time and place. And really, the only place the Velvet Underground was recorded, documented, during the years that they were putting out records was primarily the films of Andy Warhol.”
“Unlike any other…subjects of rock documentaries, the Velvet Underground don’t really reside in traditional material, like promotional material or concert footage,” Haynes added. “They reside exclusively in the films of Andy Warhol, and within a very rich community of avant garde filmmakers, who were swapping ideas and hanging out with other artists and trying to break down the boundaries that separate categories of art.”
Haynes pointed out that his team licensed a greater volume of archival film that the documentary’s actual running time, in order to capture, dissect and re-create the various multiscreen strategies used to present the band visually.
The Velvet Underground, Haynes said, captured a counterculture spirit quite distinct from the West Coast hippie movement, with a raw edge very unique to New York City and its gay subculture.
“What we were very also very keen to foreground in this film is how distinct a culture within the subculture New York was,” said Haynes. “The sort of organic communal, utopian ideas of the hippie counterculture couldn’t have been further away from this much grittier, urban, transgressive attitude that came out of New York City, and in my mind had a lot to do with that pre-Stonewall kind of queerness.”
“It wasn’t called that at the time,” he added, “but it effected an outlook and an attitude that I think you’ve seen not just in people who were necessarily gay, but who identified with this sense of being marginal and standing outside the mainstream.”
Check back Tuesday for the panel video.
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