News of Todd Haynes making his first documentary should’ve come as something of a curveball, but it was reported that the “Carol” director is planning a non-fiction project about the Velvet Underground, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine” is such a knowing, textured, and vividly remembered reflection on the glam rock era that it can be easy to forget that its story merely alludes to the likes of Lou Reed.
But the fascination the Velvet Underground holds for Haynes isn’t the only thing that makes this newly announced documentary feel like such a perfect pairing between subject and storyteller. With the landmark “The Velvet Underground & Nico” LP, Reed and his cohorts effectively forged a new language for countercultural expression, synthesizing the subversive pop stylings of Andy Warhol into a rock movement that had already been neutered of its rebellious beginnings. With films like “Poison” and “Safe,” Haynes skewered traditional film grammar in order to give his characters the language they lacked, the language that society deprived them.
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Of course, Haynes will hardly be the first narrative filmmaker to try his hand at making a music doc — from Penelope Spheeris’ “The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years” to Paul Thomas Anderson’s more recent “Junun,” some of the genre’s greatest examples have resulted from Hollywood directors who were looking to get their groove back or break out of their usual rhythm. Some of the genre’s most boring examples have resulted from the same thing.
More often than not, fiction directors tend to grow complacent when confronted by the unique demands of documentary filmmaking, and even hyper-idiosyncratic auteurs like Jim Jarmusch have fallen prey to the stultifying combination of archival footage and talking head interviews that can suck the life out of even music’s greatest stories. Concert films are one thing, but biographical docs are an entirely different beast.
Todd Haynes and the Velvet Underground are the rare combination that give us hope for something out of the ordinary. In fact, the idea is so exciting that it inspired us to dream up some more potentially incredible filmmaker/musician combos. Who wouldn’t want to watch Barry Jenkins share his love for The Chopstars with a doc that located their place in DJ culture and showcased their music in the process? What might happen if David Lowery spend a couple of months on tour with his “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” muse Joanna Newsom? How would Olivier Assayas approach a portrait of Brian Eno? Who could possibly provoke more honesty out of Kanye West than Lars von Trier?
Here are five filmmakers and musicians who we think could bring out the best from each other.
Spike Jonze + Beck
An anti-folk superstar, a pop surrealist, a glitch maestro, a Jewish-Scientologist, a crucial guest star in “The Circle”… Beck has worn so many hats (most of them fedoras) that he’s effectively disguised himself for the last three decades. Even his most confessional albums, like 2002’s “Sea Change,” tend to muddy the waters, willfully obfuscating the emotions they so bring to mind. It’s no wonder that Michel Gondry used Beck’s cover of “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime” over the bittersweet last shot of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” as the musician’s voice alone is enough to complicate the emotions in play; his strained and searching croon makes it hard to tell if a happy gloss is being applied to a sad ending, or a sad gloss is being applied to a happy one.
Having said that, it sure would be great to see what Charlie Kaufman’s other favorite director might do with the mononymous multi-instrumentalist. Spike Jonze, who directed Beck in the characteristically meta video for 2002’s “Guess I’m Doing Fine,” has always shared the musician’s eccentric sense of fun, his flair for capturing reality by coming at it sideways. Beck isn’t the type to commission a head-on biographical documentary, and Jonze (who’s currently up to something with Frank Ocean) isn’t the type to make one, and that’s exactly what makes it so much fun to imagine what it would look like if they tried. One spectacularly dumb but potentially great idea: An impressionistic look back on Beck’s mid-‘90s heyday for which Jonze could direct shot-for-shot recreations of old tour footage (starring Michael Cera as Beck, natch) that would slowly begin to fray away from what really happened.
Christopher Nolan + Philip Glass
Yeah, sure, Hans Zimmer has done a lot for Christopher Nolan’s career. There was BRAAAAHMMM and “Time” and the twinkling gravitas of the “Interstellar” score and also the ticking watch motif that ran through “Dunkirk” just in case the deafening gunfire wasn’t enough to raise our blood pressure. On the other hand, it seems like a shame that Nolan has never collaborated with a guy like Philip Glass. His signature style has evolved into a pristine cinematic analogue for Glass’ music, the filmmaker’s intricately layered plots (and the centrifugal force that holds them together) mirroring the contained frenzy of the musician’s compositions.
Scott Hicks made a decent documentary about Glass back in 2007, but it’s easy to imagine how — one diabolically clinical mind to another — Nolan’s hypothetical take on the subject might be able to achieve a certain degree of synesthesia, broaching Glass’ life in a way that looks the same way as his music sounds. As an added bonus, he could shoot the entire thing on IMAX 70mm and it would probably gross $300 million against a $2 million budget.
Gina Prince-Bythewood + Solange
First things first: There’s probably never going to be a good documentary about Beyoncé. She’s too big, her image is too careful, her royalty is too refined. When she wants to get candid, she does it through her music (and the nearly feature-length video accompaniment that sometimes comes with it). She tried the whole “honesty on film” thing back in 2013, when she was one of three credited directors on HBO’s “Life Is But a Dream,” and the project — while somewhat candid and undeniably empowering — only managed to hint at the existence of a deeper layer that it ultimately couldn’t pierce. In this, and exactly no other respects, Beyoncé might be something of a lost cause.
Solange, on the other hand, is a very different story. A brilliant artist and a ferocious agent of change, Beyoncé’s younger sister has always been a little bit more of an open book. After circling the music world for years, 2016 saw her move in for the kill with “A Seat at the Table.” That album proved once and for all that Solange was more than just Beyoncé’s sister, more than just the tabloid fodder that she helped to create; it proved that she was one of contemporary pop’s most necessary artists.
How great would it be to have someone there to capture her ascent on camera? How great would it be if that person were Gina Prince-Bythewood, whose criminally under-seen “Beyond the Lights” was a singularly powerful story of a woman negotiating her blackness on the way to Billboard success? Noni Jean (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a bit more of a prefab pop star than Solange has ever been, but there’s no doubt that Prince-Bythewood would see Knowles for exactly the woman she is.
The Wachowskis + Anohni
There are any number of reasons why this would make one hell of a pairing. It’s not just that the Wachowski sisters and Anohni are all visionary trans artists, or that they’ve previously expressed some degree of creative kinship (Anohni’s soaring “Bird Gerhl” was used to great effect in the Wachowski-produced “V for Vendetta”), but also that the Wachowskis’ outsized affinity for themes of transformation, rebirth, and eternal recurrence dovetails so beautifully with Anohni’s music.
Anohni’s imagery is elemental and raw and increasingly jagged where the Wachowskis’ is synthetic and glossy, but recent films like “Cloud Atlas” and “Sense 8” have clarified the parallels between their work. It could be extraordinary to see Anohni’s work examined and expanded upon by a team of filmmakers who approach similar sensitivities with a wildly different aesthetic, especially if the Wachowskis were able to leverage the hyper-political “Hopelessness” of Anohni’s latest record into a freeform exploration of our place in the future of this planet.
Paul Thomas Anderson + Radiohead
Duh. We’re long overdue for another Radiohead movie (it’s been almost 20 years since Grant Gee’s “Meeting People Is Easy” asserted itself as the most distressing tour documentary ever made), and it’s starting to seem like Paul Thomas Anderson is the only director who could make it. The man behind “The Master” has spent the past decade growing increasingly cozy with the world’s greatest rock band. After hiring Jonny Greenwood to score his last three films, PTA returned the favor by creating “Junun” and then helming several videos for Radiohead’s latest album (including the woozy instant classic he shot for “Daydreaming”).
Perhaps there’s potential for a mellowed “Meeting People Is Easy” sequel that shows a band of (very rich) middle-aged men coming to terms with life on the road? Maybe PTA, who’s just a smidge younger than lead singer Thom Yorke, could stitch together a portrait of what it feels like to be on the cusp of 50, a legend in your own time? Odds are that both parties would prefer something a bit less masturbatory, but — whatever the concept — it’s hard to imagine that any such film would be as satisfying for them to make as it would be for us to watch.