Rock and Roll Heart, 1998 Documentary Retraces the Remarkable Career of Lou Reed

From the album that launched a mil­lion bands to pos­si­bly the worst rap song of all time—from per­fect, career-reviv­ing col­lab­o­ra­tions to abysmal career-killing onesLou Reed’s rock and roll run has seen its share of highs and rock-bot­tom lows. Reed war­rants com­par­i­son with Neil Young for his longevi­ty, hit-and-miss pro­lif­ic out­put, and gad­fly abil­i­ty to flit from project to project, sound to sound, while still sound­ing dis­tinc­tive­ly him­self. And like Young, there are too many phas­es, too many albums, great and ter­ri­ble, to real­ly do the life’s work jus­tice in any one ret­ro­spec­tive.

But the 1998 doc­u­men­tary above, from the PBS Amer­i­can Master’s series, makes an admirable attempt. Called Rock and Roll Heart after Reed’s 1976 album and sin­gle of the same name, the film lets Reed tell much of his own sto­ry: his teenage years as a devo­tee of 50s rock and doo wop, his col­lege-days asso­ci­a­tion with poet Del­more Schwartz, episodes in his life that very much came to define his art, which mar­ries a fine­ly-tuned lit­er­ary sen­si­bil­i­ty to the sim­plic­i­ty and tune­ful­ness of clas­sic rock and roll. Reed’s warped, lyri­cal takes on streetlife psy­chodra­ma and his love for drone notes and feed­back, how­ev­er, took rock song­writ­ing places it had nev­er been before. At the open­ing of the film, Reed deliv­ers an epi­gram­mat­ic gem about him­self: “I dis­liked groups, dis­liked author­i­ty. Uh… I was made for rock and roll.”

Reed’s dis­like of groups trans­lates through­out his career into a rep­u­ta­tion for dif­fi­cul­ty that sent col­lab­o­ra­tors run­ning from him, either because he fired them (as he most famous­ly did to the bril­liant John Cale) or because they’d had enough of his ego­tism. Nonethe­less, many of those same people—Cale included—came back to work with Reed again. Cale shows up above, telling sto­ries of the gen­e­sis of The Vel­vet Underground—of him and Reed play­ing “Wait­ing for the Man” and “Hero­in” on a Harlem street­corner on vio­la and acoustic gui­tar. Oth­er con­fr­eres of Reed’s genius also appear in inter­views: Velvet’s drum­mer Mau­reen Tuck­er, David Bowie, Pat­ti Smith, Jim Car­roll, Philip Glass, and of course the man Reed cred­its most for his suc­cess, Andy Warhol, in archival footage from 1966.

The love/hate pair­ing of The Vel­vets and Nico gets an air­ing, and there’s loads of film of Lou per­form­ing, but at 73 min­utes, Rock and Roll Heart feels a lit­tle thin, and its tone is almost entire­ly cel­e­bra­to­ry, elid­ing the musi­cal low points (like the stab at rap) and end­ing with Reed’s for­ays into the­ater with Time Rock­er. But these are for­giv­able flaws. There’s no way to cov­er all the ground Reed’s bro­ken (he’s released an album rough­ly every year since 1972). And at 71 (if he can recov­er from that Metal­li­ca mash-up), he’s still at it—as he says in an inter­view above, until he dies.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear New­ly-Released Mate­r­i­al from the Lost Acetate Ver­sion of The Vel­vet Under­ground & Nico (1966)

Philip Glass & Lou Reed at Occu­py Lin­coln Cen­ter: An Art­ful View

Andy Warhol Quits Paint­ing, Man­ages The Vel­vet Under­ground (1965)

Josh Jones is a writer, edi­tor, and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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