When you think of PBS’ American Masters biography series, you think of artistes like Martha Graham or Placido Domingo. But on April 29, the franchise takes a walk on the wild side with Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart, directed by renowned portrait photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.
A longtime friend of Reed’s, Greenfield-Sanders, 46, recognizes that the biopic is a departure for the PBS showcase. ”It’s acknowledging that rock & roll has masters, and that’s a whole new thing,” he says. Reed ”brought this adult edge to rock. When I was 16, I got my first Velvet Underground record, and it changed the music I listened to.”
”It must say something about rock as a viable format for experiencing things,” adds the laconic Reed, 56, who says of the walk down memory lane only that ”it was very, very strange,” and likens it to flipping through baby pictures.
Heart‘s high points focus on Reed’s years with the Underground. Beginning as the pet project-cum-house band of Andy Warhol’s hipster mecca, the Factory, the group became integral to Warhol’s pop vision. And thanks largely to Reed’s musical tales of heroin addiction, transvestism, and S&M, it became the urban antithesis of the Woodstock set. Says Greenfield-Sanders, ”That’s the biggest laugh in the movie — when people see that contrast with the hippies dancing and the unicorns and love and all that, and the Velvets with this really gritty sense of reality.”
Citing the resonance Reed’s in-the-gutter mentality has had with punks and MTV-friendly rockers alike, Greenfield-Sanders observes, ”It’s the niche that became the most important thing to come out of [the ’60s]. Alternative music comes out of that; it was the influence of the Velvets, not the Grateful Dead.” To wit, Heart is packed with testimonials from David Bowie, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Patti Smith, and longtime fan (and Czech Republic president) Vaclav Havel.
Reed — who has a cameo in Paul Auster’s upcoming film Lulu On the Bridge and a new live album, Perfect Nights — dismisses the suggestion that he’s an odd choice for listener-supported airwaves. Says the man who penned 1996’s ”Sex With Your Parents”: ”I’m as mainstream as you can get.”