Moving into the documentary form, portrait photographer Timothy Greenfield Sanders brings a suitably experimental edge to this near reverential look at iconoclastic veteran rocker Lou Reed. Transferred to 16mm from vid, feature will look a lot better on the small screen (it’s slated for an April PBS broadcast), but cool approach to a definitively cool subject could earn some passing change in limited theatrical release.
Pic takes a straight chronological approach to charting the life of the Long Island-bred, largely self-taught musician to date, though feel throughout is more impressionistic than docu conventional. His personal life (including allegedly temperamental offstage demeanor) is pretty much ignored in favor of career overview and homage — which seems fine, given the breadth and depth of that artistic path.
Barely out of college in 1965, Reed joined up with classical pianist John Cale (soon acquiring bassist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker) to form the Velvet Underground. Reed’s pull toward gritty urban themes had already blueprinted such songs as “Heroin” and “Waiting for the Man”; the Velvets’ often feedback drenched, caterwauling sound rendered them yet more of an anomaly amid the Peace & Love Generation. Their nihilistic stance attracted “sponsorship” from Andy Warhol, who built a multimedia circus around live gigs. Despite that celebrity boost, the V.U. was a losing commercial proposition — albeit one whose influence would be cited by nearly every punk and alternative rock band from 1975 onward.
In the early ’70s Reed went solo, flirting with the glam rock scene and briefly gaining David Bowie as a collaborator. Latter produced “Walk on the Wild Side,” one of the former’s few hit singles. Despite fervent critical and fan admiration, such uncompromising albums as “Berlin” and “Metal Machine Music” scarcely risked duplicating such success.
By the mid ’80s Reed’s emotional and substance abusive demons (just barely alluded to here) were tamed. His songwriting gained a high-water maturity and self-reflection on discs including “New York,” “Songs for Drella” (a reunion with Cage) and “Magic & Loss.” These days he’s branched out into poetry readings and a recent collaboration with avant garde theater director Robert Wilson.
Greenfield Sanders deploys some 30 interviewees, from Reed’s erstwhile Warhol Factory cronies through later musicians he inspired (Patti Smith, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore), as well as various critics, artists and even Czech president Vaclav Havel, a V.U. fan. Their input is laced through a dense weave of concert footage, Warhol memorabilia and miscellaneous old experimental clips that evoke excerpted songs’ ambiance.
Though not as beautifully packaged as a related earlier docu, Suzanna Ofteringer’s “Nico: Icon,” pic does create an intelligent, artful mosaic reflecting the subject’s times, aesthetic and shifting public personae. Pic makes a persuasive case for him as a rock lyricist with an unusually literary sensibility, as well as a unique chronicler of fringe NYC life.
Only weak tech point is not great transfer from vid to 16, which hobbles bigscreen impact of an otherwise carefully designed effort.