Like most artists, Lou Reed was never content to involve himself in only one art form. Unquestionably one of the most important musicians of the last 50 years, Lou Reed didn’t just write and perform great rock ‘n’ roll songs, he was actively involved in almost every aspect of the arts, from poetry to stage to photography, and even several movies. Lou Reed may not have been trained as an actor, but his several on-screen appearances proved that his talent went well beyond the realm of music.
Even if he never showed up in front of the camera, there’s no doubt that Lou Reed’s music (both solo and with the Velvet Underground) has had a profound impact on film, considering that over 100 films and TV shows have contained his music on their soundtracks. Many have made excellent use of those songs, from Natural Born Killers' haunting use of Cowboy Junkies cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” (now making it the go-to song when uninventive filmmakers want to show drug use) to Juno’s “I’m Sticking with You” and my own personal favorite, the 1989 James Woods legal thriller True Believer, which very satisfyingly closes with “Busload of Faith” (from New York). There’s little to no question that Lou Reed and his music was made for the movies, which made his too-few on-screen appearances all the more special.
Reed made his debut as an actor (aside from several Warhol “Screen Tests” made at the Factory in the late '60s) in Paul Simon’s sole effort as an actor and screenwriter, 1980’s One Trick Pony (directed by Roger M. Young), playing a sleazy, Top 40 record producer who subverts Simon’s attempts at a comeback album to conform more to the record label’s need for a mainstream hit. Reed may have been able to draw from personal experience in his role, but he proved himself to be a convincing jerk in his handful of scenes that makes you think that, yes, he really does believe that Simon’s “ballsy” record would sound better with a string session and sax solo. One Trick Pony proved to be a famous flop in theaters (the soundtrack sold considerably better), and its failure may have kept Reed away from the screen, but when he returned he did so with a classic performance that should have given Reed a film career, but still deserves rediscovery: Allan Arkush’s Get Crazy.
Based on Arkush’s days as the stage manager at the famed Fillmore East rock club, Get Crazy is about a wild New Year’s Eve concert at L.A.’s Saturn Theater filled with an eclectic mix of acts (just like the Fillmore), including a terrific Malcolm McDowell as the Mick Jagger-esqe Reggie Wakner and Reed as Bob Dylan stand-in Auden, a mysterious rock legend “antisocial recluse” who hasn’t left his apartment in six years. Agreeing to show up because he’s told that club owner Allen Garfield is dying (which becomes the song “Deathbed Request”). Reed’s role is small, but he’s absolutely terrific in the part and his perfect, deadpan delivery is solely responsible for several of the biggest laughs in the film. (I asked Arkush how he knew Reed could be so funny on Facebook earlier this year, and he responded, “Lou was the first person we offered it to, and he said yes. He didn't think it was at all funny, but I ran into him about 10 years later and he admitted that he now saw the humor.”) Unfortunately, Get Crazy never got the release it deserved and isn’t even available on DVD (Arkush claims the film’s stereo soundtrack is missing), but if you can see it then don’t miss one of the best rock ‘n’ roll comedies ever made with one of the funniest performances from a true rock legend ever captured on film.
Aside from 2007’s Julian Schnabel concert film Berlin, Reed’s other on-screen appearances were limited to a cameo in Wang Wang’s Blue in the Face and cameos as himself in Prozac Nation and Lulu on the Bridge, though Reed did lend his voice to Luc Besson’s Arthur and the Invisibles sequels and, most famously, the animated Canadian cult film Rock & Rule from 1983. Though he only provides the singing voice for the film’s villain, his rendition of “My Name Is Mok” remains the film’s unquestioned highlight. Reed’s final film work ended up being his most personal, his 2010 short documentary Red Shirley, where Reed interviews his 99-year-old cousin, Holocaust survivor Shirley Novick. As always with Reed, it’s an intense, personal and often touching work from an artist who left an indelible mark on pretty much everything he created and will be sorely missed.
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