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’: