The Arty Semite

Friday Film: Lou Reed's 'Red Sheep'

By Margaret Eby

  • Print
  • Share Share

For those accustomed to seeing Lou Reed as the snarling badass of the New York music scene, his first directorial effort, “Red Shirley,” will come as something of a shock. Far from touching on the trademark obsessions of his Velvet Underground days — sadomasochism and drugs, to be precise — the film is a loving, strenuously respectful portrait of his cousin, Shirley Novick, on the eve of her 100th birthday.

The documentary, which screens January 15 at the New York Jewish Film Festival and clocks in at a mere 28 minutes, is full of awkward angles and random shifts from color to black-and-white. It’s a clumsy effort, technically speaking, full of production flaws that are bizarre to the point of distraction, yet the story that Reed tells is charming enough that you can almost overlook the film’s defects.

“Red Shirley” shows Reed marveling at the richness of his cousin’s life, engrossed by the details of what, for so many immigrants, was an ordinary experience. At 19, Shirley immigrated to Canada from her tiny village in Poland, arriving with two suitcases, no relatives, and no grasp of the English language. (After reading Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” she had determined America was not for her.) But she found Canada too provincial, moving away after six months to the “hustle bustle” of New York City, where she made her living as a dressmaker.

In 47 years “at the machine,” Novick worked furiously for fair labor laws and civil rights, speaking out for the union even when it proved dangerous, and somehow ending up at the front of the crowd during the 1963 March on Washington. “Someone asked me if I was the black sheep in my family,” she tells Reed, “and I said no. I’m the red sheep.”

Reed’s interviewing technique is bumbling, but also heart-warming. He eggs Shirley on with the occasional “You’re kidding me!” and a “You can’t be serious,” in seeming amazement at the accomplishments of this modest woman. And when Novick describes finding her sisters through the Red Cross 25 years after her parents and other siblings perished in the Holocaust — “And then,” she says simply, her eyes downcast, “we were family again” — I swear a tear comes into Reed’s eyes.

This is really the redeeming quality of the movie: seeing a celebrity like Lou Reed (who has led a pretty extraordinary life himself) hang enraptured on the words of his cousin. It makes you want to run out, grab a camera, and record your own family history. The editing may be corny, and the camera work may need improvement, but Reed conveys a genuine sense of awe at the strength, compassion and ingenuity of a 20th-century immigrant like his cousin. For all its faults, “Red Shirley” is probably the least vain vanity project in recent memory.

Watch the trailer for ‘Red Shirley’:


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Margaret Eby, Red Shirley, Shirley Novick, New York Jewish Film Festival, Lou Reed, Film, The Velvet Underground

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • In WWI, Jews fought for Britain. So why were they treated as outsiders?
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.