Lou Reed: Rock And Roll Heart director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders with Lou Reed in 2000: “I forgot how much we travelled for that film.” Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
With Spotlight selection Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground (Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen Tucker, Sterling Morrison, plus Nico) and Revival pick Edward Lachman’s Songs For Drella (composed and performed by Lou Reed and John Cale) being two highlights of the 59th New York Film Festival, I contacted Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, the director/producer of Lou Reed: Rock And Roll Heart, for a timely conversation on his terrific debut feature film.
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders with Anne-Katrin Titze on going with Tally Brown to the Chelsea Hotel: “We walked into this party with Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis, Lou Reed, all of the Warhol people were there. I was 18.”
Holly Woodlawn and Joe Dallesandro adoringly sing Walk On The Wild Side, Jonas Mekas talks about Barbara Rubin introducing The Velvet Underground to Andy Warhol, Lou Reed works on Robert Wilson’s Time Rocker. Timothy’s interviews include David Bowie, Patti Smith, Jim Carroll, Philip Glass, John Cale, David Byrne, Suzanne Vega, Dave Stewart, Mary Woronov, Václav Havel, Kirk Varnedoe, Maureen Tucker, Thurston Moore, Lee Renaldo, Gerard Melanga, Ronnie Cutrone, Lisa Robinson, and John Rockwell.
In New York, it all began with Tally Brown, a car, and a party at the Chelsea Hotel.
From Upstate New York, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart.
Anne-Katrin Titze: Here we are!
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders: Nice to see you!
AKT: Nice to see you too! It was so good to see your film again after having just watched Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground. It’s a great companion piece and it’s so nice to revisit it. You haven’t seen your film in a while?
TGS: I haven’t seen my film in a while and I haven’t seen his film at all. So I’m curious how they work together or not.
AKT: His is just, as the title says, about The Velvet Underground. You have Lou Reed speaking - that makes a big difference.
AKT: There are a few overlaps, but not too many. What was your first encounter with Lou Reed?
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders: “The first interview for the film was shot in London and it was David Bowie.” Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
TGS: I had been a fan of Lou since I was 16 and got The Velvet Underground and Nico album. I fell in love with The Velvets like many teenagers back then in the Sixties. In those days the album was so important; I was intrigued by these images on it and I learned who Andy Warhol was, it was much more than an album for me. It was almost an entry into New York and a kind of underground that I didn’t know much about.
When I went to college in New York at Columbia, I had a very good friend of my parents who was kind of a Warhol superstar and a blues singer and actress, an extraordinary woman named Tally Brown. I called her up two weeks into my first semester at Columbia and I said “Tally, I’m in New York and I’m a student here now.” And she said “Oh, that’s nice, that’s nice.” And then I said “By the way, I have a car.”
AKT: The magic word in New York!
TGS: The magic word! And she said “Oh you have a car? Darling, pick me up at 10 o’clock tonight and we’ll go to a party.” So she lives on 181st Street and Riverside, I picked her up and the first place we went was the Chelsea Hotel. We walked into this party with Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis, Lou Reed, all of the Warhol people were there. I was 18. I wasn’t intimidated, you know, it was just extraordinary.
AKT: And ever since then you were never nervous around anyone.
TGS: I learned early to understand celebrity, I think. So over the next few years, I was with Tally all the time and getting a very inside view into the downtown scene. I remember going to the Lou Reed concert at Alice Tully Hall and Lou was very distant. I mean, I never talked to him then. It wasn’t until many many years later in the early Nineties that I came up with an idea for a portrait series and I pitched it to GQ. The idea was: Famous people with their best friends. It was Lou Reed and who was his best friend? Well he chose at the time Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller. And it was Calvin Klein with David Geffen.
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders on Holly Woodlawn and Joe Dallesandro: “The hands and their expressions, it’s beautiful footage!” Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
TGS: Ethan Hawke and Jonathan Marc Sherman, the writer. So it was an interesting group. Lou came to my studio for a portrait with Penn Jillette and that was the beginning of our friendship. I kind of understood how to approach him carefully, I understood that type of personality. He called me a few weeks later and told me “I’m doing a new album and need a new portrait for the cover, do you want to do it?” That was the beginning.
AKT: Great story and long beginning, too. You have a great line by Lou about Andy: “He was passing through many people; I didn’t want him to pass through me.”
TGS: It’s a brilliant line. There are so many good lines in that film. I feel it’s so beautifully edited that way. It’s a very dense film in the sense that you need to watch it multiple times. And at the time that it was made, it was very fast in terms of pacing. Today, I don’t know how it holds up that way. Back then people considered it super fast editing.
AKT: It has a good rhythm and it has surprises. For example David Bowie - you start with the appetizer of his voice. And people might think, hmm, maybe he didn’t get him on camera? That’s your trick and then there he is with his extraordinary earring and his linen suit.
TGS: Right. I also wanted to try if possible, to use the Warhol Screen Tests that many of the people had sat for. We had access to many of them. I wanted to use that to introduce that figure, so each time you’d see a new person, it would start with the Warhol Screen Test and then merge into our interview with them, the same pose and everything.
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders on Patti Smith: “Patti said to me years later that she thought it was one of the best interviews she’d ever done.” Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
AKT: The Screen Tests are something where there’s overlap with the Todd Haynes film. He uses split screen at times where he has the Screen Test on one side and some movement and things going on on the other.
TGS: I’m sure he didn’t want to copy me. Sounds like he came up with a smart way to do it.
AKT: Many totally different choices, for instance The Ostrich, that song Lou Reed composed for his early job. You show us fashion shots with ostrich feathers at the hems in the Sixties, very lovely. Todd Haynes has Lou Reed’s sister [Merrill Reed Weiner] dance The Ostrich dance!
TGS: That’s amazing, wow!
AKT: You have one double portrait that is so great - Holly Woodlawn and Joe Dallesandro holding hands - it’s beautiful.
TGS: Sometimes in interviews you know that you are witnessing an extraordinary moment. I remember it so well. We shot it at the Chateau Marmont in L.A.. The interview was going okay and then at some point we said something like - maybe sing Walk on the Wild Side? And they did! The hands and their expressions, it’s beautiful footage!
AKT: It’s wonderful. At the very end, did you tell all of them: Screen Test, now laugh?
TGS: Yes! At the end of each interview, I asked for a minute of the Warhol Screen Test. I did my own version at the end and some of them laughed, Like Bowie couldn’t keep from laughing. Some of the others held it together, really.
AKT: It’s also always great to see what they chose to wear. Jonas Mekas in his gardener’s hat. As a young man he looked like Harvey Keitel, which I never noticed before.
TGS: That’s true, yeah.
AKT: Patti Smith is great with her commentary.
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders: “Jim Carroll is fabulous as well. He’s such a fan of Lou’s.” Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
TGS: Patti said to me years later that she thought it was one of the best interviews she’d ever done. I got better at interviewing. The first interview for the film was shot in London and it was David Bowie. And we were given fifteen minutes. He sent in his makeup person to say hello to me and I was watching her. And I know those tricks.
I could tell she was looking at the lighting. Because she really wasn’t just the makeup person, she was his lighting person, too. And I said “It’s flattering, right?” And she goes “Yes, it’s perfect, thank you.” But when he came in and we started the interview, I didn’t know that you shouldn’t laugh on camera. So I’m talking to him and I started laughing, because he is very funny. And my co-producer, Karen Bernstein, jabs me and says shut up! I was so naïve, I never did it again.
AKT: You are all over the place with Lou Reed. Did you travel to the poetry festival in Italy? To Amsterdam, Paris, Brussels?
TGS: Yes, Time Rocker we shot in Amsterdam with Robert Wilson. We were able to get footage from a dress rehearsal before the premiere, that was wonderful to have. I remember in 1996, my father died and Lou could sense that I was sort of blue, and he called me one day and said “I’m going to Italy, all expenses paid, first class for a poetry festival, why don’t you join me? I have an extra ticket.” So I went and we got great footage there. I forgot how much we travelled for that film.
After I met Lou, and you know I was a filmmaker originally before I was a photographer, I had all this equipment and every time I would be photographing Lou, I would film it too. If he was doing a concert, I would film it and I would be gathering all this material à la Warhol, which was: you shoot in every medium you can and you get everything for the archive. At a certain point I had so much material and didn’t know what to do with it. I saw a film called Tantrums and Tiaras, which was by the at the time boyfriend of Elton John. I don’t know if you’ve seen the film?
Lou Reed: Rock And Roll Heart poster
AKT: No, I haven’t.
TGS: It’s a fabulous film. About Elton. By David Furnish, who at the time was his boyfriend. He was using like Hi8, little cameras and stuff. A film about Elton traveling to concerts and taking like 60 suitcases of wardrobe, including tiaras. It’s very intimate and behind the scenes and I just loved it and thought, maybe I could do something like that with this material of Lou Reed.
Susan Lacy, who was the head of American Masters, who invented American Masters, is my friend. I asked her advice and she said, you know, we’ve never done a rock ’n’ roll star for American Masters, why don’t you produce and direct it? It kind of fell into my lap, no one knew it would turn out so well.
AKT: The John Cale interview is great as well, in his orange shirt and red vest, devilishly commenting.
TGS: Yes. And I think the Jim Carroll is fabulous as well. He’s such a fan of Lou’s.
AKT: Philip Glass, of course, speaks on a different note. I like how everybody tells so much about themself by how they talk about Lou. Glass speaks about the “consciously experimental aspect of Velvet.” Absolutely! Consciousness was on his mind. I also loved the John Rockwell moment.
TGS: Fabulous. Being the subject of a song, yes, and kind of enjoying it, I think. Annoyed, but at the same time he’s in a Lou Reed song.
AKT: I loved that he called it “swell!” You couldn’t pick a more old-fashioned word.
TGS: It’s perfect. In this extremely hip world and someone uses the word swell!
AKT: A couple of years ago, I had a student who used the word swell and I asked him if it was coming back. But no, swell is not coming back yet.
Ed Bahlman's Lou Reed New York Public Library card Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
TGS: That’s very funny. There were so many great interviews and so much material, I think in those days it was sort of an honor to be part of it. I enjoyed this, it’s always fun to think about the film.
AKT: You should be very proud of it. I think you are.
TGS: Yeah, I am. We’re still trying to get it re-upped, as they say.
AKT: It’s great.
TGS: Lovely to see you again!
Coming up - Timothy Greenfield-Sanders on what is Sundance, remembering Michael Apted, The Roman Spring Of Mrs. Stone and Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Sylvia Miles and Toni Morrison, Songs for Drella, Max’s Kansas City, a visit by music producer and 99 Records founder Ed Bahlman, and the upcoming Lou Reed: Caught Between The Twisted Stars exhibition.
On March 2, 2022, Lou Reed's 80th birthday, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center will open the exhibition Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars. It will be on view through August 27, 2022 and will include photographs by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.