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Todd Haynes takes on the Velvet Underground – but could he have gone even further?

14 November 2021

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

No one could be happier about the release of Todd Haynes’s film about the Velvet Underground than Apollo’s roving correspondent. Not only has the film-maker got round the problem of making a documentary about a band for which hardly any archive concert footage exists, he has found a neat solution to the fact that its co-founder can’t be one of the talking heads that carries the film. (Although does anyone think that Lou Reed would have taken part, if he were alive?)

Haynes tackles both challenges by splitting the screen, so that while surviving band members and other contributors have their say, there’s a parade of still photos and video clips playing in counterpoint. Andy Warhol, the band’s svengali, may be having the last laugh after all.

The making and meeting of Lou Reed and John Cale naturally dominates proceedings – and Reed’s force of personality makes itself felt even though he’s not around to speak to camera any more. One might say he glowers throughout. Your roving correspondent can’t help thinking of another, consistently more joyful presentation of the musician who loathed journalists (although revisiting some of the questions he was asked at the height of his fame does help explain his attitude). Earlier this year, Liz Phair released a single called ‘Hey Lou’. The accompanying video features Lou Reed and the artist Laurie Anderson as a pair of utterly charming puppets – with a cameo from a puppet Andy Warhol that looks uncannily like the real thing.

This reminds us that Todd Haynes began his career with Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, in which all the characters in her tragic life story were represented by dolls. The film was swiftly withdrawn for copyright infringement as none of the music was cleared – although it’s not, let’s say, quite as impossible to see as it once was… Rakewell would thoroughly welcome a follow-up about Lou Reed’s solo career – with Todd Haynes as puppet master.

Got a story for Rakewell? Get in touch at rakewell@apollomag.com or via @Rakewelltweets.