Rock legend Lou Reed on Tuesday unveiled his directorial debut, a poignant documentary about his 99-year-old cousin, at an international film festival in Nyon.
The art-rocker took time out from his European tour with his experimental group Metal Machine Trio to discuss his new film and read poems to a packed audience in the western Swiss city.
A long queue snakes slowly around the Théâtre de Marens at the Visions du Réel documentary festival. The expectant crowd of rock fans and film buffs wait patiently for their man, sipping beers and exchanging tales about Reed and his eclectic career.
“It’s amazing he’s still with us – a bit like Keith Richards,” laughs one fan.
Three hours later the doors open and the crowd surges in to grab the best seats. But tonight is not deep noise or garage night; tonight is all about Red Shirley.
The former Velvet Underground frontman and creator of legendary solo albums Berlin and Transformer swapped his electric guitar for a film camera at the age of 68 to produce a moving documentary about his cousin Shirley Novick.
“I did this film as she’s one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met and I wanted to preserve her forever so that others could meet her – she’s so inspiring,” explained the frail-looking artist, who travelled from London by train early on Tuesday morning.
Incredible life story
In the 30-minute film, white-haired Novick recounts her incredible life story to Reed in a personal tête-à-tête that lasted several hours one weekend.
From her New York apartment, she talks about the ordeal of surviving two world wars and then leaving Poland – and her family - in 1938 at the age of 19 with only two suitcases and a few dollars in her pocket for Montreal, Canada.
Rather than learning French, she took up the mandolin during the six months she spent there, before emigrating illegally hidden in a truck to New York where she met Reed’s grandfather.
In the Big Apple she worked as a seamstress and became spokeswoman for her colleagues from the garment industry, winning her the nickname “Red Shirley”.
In the second half of the film she talks about her activism, culminating in her participation in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and about reconnecting with her relatives.
“You went away and lived, and they stayed and died,” says Reed.
“Hitler took care of them,” she replies in a deadpan tone.
Her parents were killed in the war, but her two sisters fled to Palestine to “push the Zionist cause”. Later Shirley tells how she managed to find them thanks to the Red Cross.
Reed made the film with photographer Ralph Gibson, completing it earlier this year.
Like Reed’s black-and-white landscape photos – his third book Romanticism was published last year – Red Shirley shows a reflective, emotional rocker.
The intimate conversation reveals his close relationship with his cousin, as he laughs at her direct answers, strokes her tenderly and teases her about losing her memory.
The film is shot in a mixture of colour and black and white, and uses old photographs and freeze-frame images and unusual focusing thanks to “killer lenses”.
Reed says he originally wanted the entire film to be in black and white. The movie was influenced by the aesthetics of Tom Ford’s recent film The Single Man, he added.
His current group, Metal Machine Trio, which is touring in Europe, wrote the soundtrack.
After the premiere, Reed gave a rather lackluster reading of his song lyrics from Velvet Underground classics, like Andy Warhol’s favourite “All tomorrow’s parties” and “I’ll be your mirror”, and solo efforts “The day John Kennedy died” and “Romeo had Juliette”.
Despite this, the audience was generally positive about the evening.
Lou Reed fan Alain Bourrely said he had been slightly dubious about the idea of the festival showcasing a rockstar’s documentary.
“But I was pleasantly surprised,” he told swissinfo.ch. “The character is amazing and it was well filmed. And he was much more available than I’d imagined.”
The film also got the thumbs up from Ruben Gomez from Geneva: “It was a wonderful portrait – short and very touching.”
“The cinematography was not revolutionary, but the strength of the testimony and the personality mean that it grabs your attention,” added film professor François Zaneta.
So, after his debut documentary, did Reed have other film projects in mind?
“No; all I wanted to do was to try to film Shirley, and I did,” he told swissinfo.ch. “I don’t have any other ambitions in that area unless she lives to 170 and then we’ll do part two.”
“I don’t know what it feels like to be a filmmaker. I don’t feel like a musician or writer either – I’m still trying to figure that one out,” he said.
Simon Bradley in Nyon, swissinfo.ch
1942: Born in New York.
1964: founded The Velvet Underground after meeting John Cale and Andy Warhol. Produced five studio albums including The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967).
1970: Solo album Lou Reed, followed by Transformer produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson (1972), Berlin (1973), Sally Can’t Dance (1974), ), Rock 'n' Roll Animal (1974), Metal Music Machine (1975), Coney Island Baby (1975), Rock and Roll Heart (1975), Street Hassle (1978), The Bells (1979), Growing up in Public (1980), The Blue Mask (1982), Legendary Hearts (1983), New Sensations (1984), Mistrial (1986), New York (1989), Songs for Drella, with ex-Velvet-partner John Cale (1990), Magic and Loss (1992), Set the Twilight Reeling (1996), Ecstasy (2000), The Raven (2003), Hudson River Wind Meditations (2007), The Stone: Issue Three (2008), The Creation of the Universe (2008), re-mastered version of Metal Music Machine (2010).
1993: The Velvet Underground was re-formed with its original line-up, and toured in Europe.
1996: Reed and other band members were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Reed is also a playwright, poet and photographer, and has acted in and composed music for several films.
Visions du Réel
Visions du Réel is the most important film festival in French-speaking Switzerland, and one of three major film festivals in Switzerland along with Solothurn and Locarno.
The festival began in 1969 and became known for showing films that reflected struggles for independence, or the emancipation of women, for example.
It was given a makeover in 1995 with a new strategy that included fictional and experimental films and was renamed Visions du Réel.
It is a focal point for European producers and distributors.
The 16th Visions du Réel festival runs from April 15-21.
There are 160 films from 16 countries, including 20 films in the international categories.