Songs for Drella: Death and Disaster, by David Bax
Edward Lachman is one of the most talented and prolific cinematographers of the last 30 or so years. He’s worked with many of the cinephile-favorite directors of that time period, including multiple collaborations with Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich), Todd Solondz (Life During Wartime, Wiener-Dog) and, most often, Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven to present). It’s in the latter capacity, in preparation for Haynes’ Velvet Underground documentary, that Lachman rediscovered the missing original negatives of his 1990 film Songs for Drella, which has now been restored to our great benefit.
It’s hard to decide into which category Songs for Drella ought to be slotted. It’s kind of a concert film staged primarily for the purpose of being filmed, like Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense. But that movie had an audience. This one is just the sound of the music and the vocals (all of which is written and performed by John Cale and Lou Reed). So, in modern parlance, is it a visual album, then? Not quite, because this is still a live performance, not images set to the recordings. So, fine, let’s just allow it to be in a category by itself, a fitting fate for a project as singular as the one it documents.
Without an audience to interact with, Cale and Reed say nothing but the lyrics and look at no one other than one another. They do so quite often, in fact, checking in with each other from opposite sides of the large stage while massive words and images are projected on to the wall behind them. There’s an intimacy to the performance that almost makes it feel as if you’re peaking into a rehearsal.
That makes the pair seem vulnerable but that impression is only heightened by the facts around the project. “Drella” is Andy Warhol, a friend and mentor to both men. Having grown apart, Cale and Reed reconnected after Warhol’s death and, three years later, produced this cycle of songs with him, a collection of pieces that vary from tender to celebratory to angry, a mix that won’t be unfamiliar to those who have grieved. Armed with the knowledge of the project’s inspiration, those moments of eye contact between the two men start to feel like more than just checking for chord changes and what not. Maybe they’re just making sure each other are okay.
Some songs include direct excerpts from Warhol’s diaries in the lyrics, including passages about Cale and Reed, not all of them complimentary. Whether or not that’s a violation of Warhol’s privacy is a moot point; the diaries had already been published. But it is very personal to the two men onstage as they suspend their pain and mourning in musical amber. Songs for Drella is less about Andy Warhol than it is about what happens to the people we leave behind after we die.