Saturday, March 2, 2013

Lou Reed in the movies: The actor comes home late

Lou Reed has logged a fair bit of time on film throughout his career, be it filming an Andy Warhol screen test, making a controversial Honda scooter commercial or dropping by Saturday Night Live to confirm rumors of his death. From time to time, he’s even dabbled in cinematic acting. Nobody’s about to suggest that Lou made a bad call choosing rhythm guitar over improv classes, but his acting résumé is just as interesting and iconoclastic as you might assume.

Blue in the Face (1995)
Wayne Wang’s agreeably tossed-together movie is a peculiar jumble of skits, man-on-the-street interviews and loose narrative threads all about how cool it is to live in Brooklyn. The whole thing is a mess, but it’s a pleasant mess whose highs pretty much balance out its lows. Lou’s running monologue is among the highest of those highs. Leaning nonchalantly on a cigar store counter and sporting a truly inspirational wall of kinky black hair, Lou rambles about his love of New York, his fear of Sweden and his homemade sunglasses. It’s a mesmerizing performance that suggests Lou should really get into the spoken word business.

Get Crazy (1983)
This is a delightful little “let’s put on a show” movie about a legendary rock club in dire financial straits. The underlying plot has club owner Allan Garfield scrambling to throw together an all-star New Year’s Eve benefit bash before Ed Begley, Jr’s evil suit can shut the place down, but it’s mostly an excuse for a bunch of goofy set pieces and killer musical performances. (Lee Ving’s hardcore take on “Hoochie Coochie Man” in particular is one of my favorite musical movie moments.)

Lou plays one of the biggest names on the bill, a spaced-out singer-songwriter named Auden who’s trying to work his way out of a crippling case of writer’s block. He’s introduced in a visual parody of Bob Dylan’s Bringing it All Back Home LP and then spends most of his screen time confined to the back of a taxi cab that careens around New York while Lou nonchalantly strums a guitar and mutters. As it turns out, Lou Reed’s muted deadpan makes him a perfect straight man for zany comedy.

Lulu on the Bridge (1998)
A ponderous, pretentious Paul Auster production is exactly Lou’s bag. This is a murky little late ‘90s indie film about jazz man Harvey Keitel recovering from a gunshot wound with the help of Mira Sorvino and a magical floating rock. Yep.

Lulu on the Bridge, Lou Reed and Mira Sorvino

Lou shows up in struggling actress Sorvino’s demo reel, playing an actor playing a john trying to pick up Mira’s fast-talking prostitute. Lou doesn’t have a lot to do except look snazzy in a goldenrod jacket, but he has a few facial reactions that are bizarrely humanizing. The credits list his character as “Not Lou Reed” – When he pops up on the demo tape, Keitel excitedly says, “Hey, that’s Lou Reed!” Sorvino replies, “No, it’s not. It… it just looks like him.” It’s that kind of movie.

Rock & Rule (1983)
OK, so some time in the future mankind finally drives itself to extinction, at which point cats, dogs and rodents evolve into humanoids and follow the same trajectory as their forebears, up to and including establishing their very own late ‘70s arena rock scene. There’s also a dose of magic or sorcery or some such  mixed in there. If you’re down with that premise, you might be able to handle Rock & Rule, a Ralph Bakshi-aping adult cartoon with admirable ambition but fairly shoddy execution.

At least the soundtrack boasts the talents of Cheap Trick, Debbie Harry and (very briefly) Iggy Pop, among others. Even with that estimable roster, Lou cuts the strongest figure as the singing voice (Don “Dr. Claw” Francks provides the speaking voice) of Mok, the villainous pop superstar who wants to rule the world with music. While most of the songs in Rock & Rule are good-not-great – I’d guess the headliners didn’t want to squander their A-material on a cartoon about rock & roll dog people – Lou’s “My Name Is Mok” is a bracing, stomping little slab of sleaze that forces the viewer to sit up and damn well pay attention.

Prozac Nation (2001)
Elizabeth Wurtzel’s professional writing career was launched by an essay about her love of Lou Reed’s music, so it’s pretty cool that Lou agreed to play himself in this shrill movie adaption of her memoir of mental illness and addiction. On the other hand, watching Christina Ricci get herself in the mood by fantasizing about a barely legal Jonathan Rhys-Meyers morphing into a 60-year-old Lou Reed is unsettling on several levels.

Far Away So Close (1993)
An invisible angel eavesdrops on Lou Reed’s creative process, then turns human and attends a Lou Reed concert, then becomes a derelict and gets a few bucks and some words of encouragement from Lou Reed. A lot of folks would argue that Wim Wenders was foolish to make a sequel to his revered Wings of Desire. I can see where they’re coming from, but do we really want to live in a world where a movie about German angels starring Lou Reed, Peter Falk and Mikhail Gorbachev doesn’t exist?

Arthur and the Revenge of Malthazar (2009)
Apparently this Luc Besson-written series of live action/animated kids’ movies is rather a big deal in Europe, but it hasn’t quite caught on over here. The trailers I’ve seen look sort of obnoxious, but I can’t deny being intrigued at the notion of Lou Reed as a cartoon super villain working alongside Mia Farrow, Snoop Dogg, Selena Gomez, Jimmy Fallon and half of the Black Eyed Peas.

One Trick Pony (1980)
“Hey, we’re already banking on a feature film with Paul Simon in the lead. Why not go for broke and cast Lou Reed as the vaguely Phil Spector-esque producer who insists on ‘sweetening up’ Simon’s gritty new sound?” The weird thing is that it mostly works. Simon proves a capable anchor for a ‘70s-style character study of an artist in crisis, and Lou hits just the right blend of cockiness, creepiness and charisma to make him a believable bully of a record producer. That the schmaltzy sound he imposes on Simon is so far afield from most of Lou’s real-life work is a nice little in-joke for hep viewers. If nothing else, this movie allows us to see Lou Reed share a scene with Rip Torn, and for that we should be forever grateful.

Final Weapon (2010)
I haven’t been able to track down this Minnesota-made short film, but the trailer tells me it’s a martial arts movie with a score and guest appearance by Lou Reed. Why is Lou Reed in a low-budget, 15-minute, Minnesotan martial arts movie? I assume it’s because the film involves t’ai chi, and Lou loves t’ai chi. Judging by the trailer, his role requires him to sit quietly and look portentious. I have to admit he’s good at that.

All told, that’s not a half-bad acting résumé. Still, Lou’s finest performance in front of a camera will always be this:

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