Long thought lost, this beautifully minimalist film made in 1990 records the first on stage reunion of former bandmates Lou Reed and John Cale, co-founders of the immortal 1960s band the Velvet Underground, as they perform, without an audience, their Songs for Drella album at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Mostly the songs channel the voice of Andy Warhol, the Velvets’ former manager and producer (although the band dispute how much input he really had), who had died three years earlier. Indeed, Cale and Reed first conceived of this project at Warhol’s memorial service, where they ran into each after a long estrangement.
Out of that encounter came a remarkable, acclaimed album and, tangentially, this film, previously only available on VHS and LaserDisc. The negative was thought lost but it turns out it was only mislaid; director-cinematographer Ed Lachman found the 16mm negative in the proverbial attic while working with Todd Haynes on the latter’s documentary about the Velvet Underground, which came out last year.
The whole thing is about memory and recovery in a very literal sense. The songs themselves, showcased beautifully here, must be some of the most scaldingly honest eulogies in the history of pop music, capturing as they do the many sides of Warhol, not all of them nice. The ambivalence is right there in the title, drawing on the inner circle’s nickname for Warhol (Drella = Dracula + Cinderella). It was a handle Warhol himself disliked but one that captures what frenemies like Cale and Reed considered his vampirish relationship to others. It Wasn’t Me, for instance, implicitly castigates Warhol’s refusal to take any responsibility for those churned up in his Factory’s wake, felled by suicide or overdoses.
And yet Cale and Reed also sing in their own voices, shifting perspectives to say goodbye to an irreplaceable figure in their lives they also admired and at one point loved. Don’t expect any tears, of course: both men seem stoic, controlled and tense throughout this charged performance. They lock eyes with each other to make sure they’re literally in sync; not out of shared pain or friendship or anything wet like that. As one song quotes Warhol: “All that matters is work.”