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Lou Reed Profile Handled With Velvet Gloves

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Back in the free-form days at the crux of the Lou Reed story, things would never have been well planned enough to have a TV biography such as “Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart” coincide neatly with the release of a new Reed live album.

That’s life in the ‘90s (the show, part of the “American Masters” series, airs tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28; the album hit the stores last week), and it’s just one measure of the changes that have occurred since the young musician hit New York in the mid-'60s.

Another, more dramatic segue is the transformation of Reed’s face, from wide-eyed, teenage Matthew Broderick look-alike to deeply lined, Lincolnesque icon. Producer-director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders is a noted fashion and fine-art photographer, and he brings a visual flair and sensitivity to his original, portrait-like footage.

His telling of the Reed saga is thorough and entertaining, if not revelatory, delineating Reed’s determination to combine the spirits of literature and rock ‘n’ roll, following the Velvet Underground from scuffling outsiders to Andy Warhol proteges, and tracing the massive influence the band exerted on the popular music of the subsequent decades.

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The show’s format--a standard mix of contemporary interviews, vintage clips and photos and period scene-setters--rises and falls with the quality of the commentary, and “Rock and Roll Heart” has the advantage of such articulate and / or engaging participants as Patti Smith, poet Jim Carroll, David Bowie, some colorful alumni of Warhol U. and such Reed heirs as David Byrne and members of Sonic Youth. The fact that some of the keenest observations come from a New York art museum curator and a London art critic reflects Reed’s interdisciplinary impact.

Thoroughness eventually fades into repetition in an hour that’s properly respectful but glaringly uncritical--you’d never know that Reed’s long career has included missteps as well as classics. And the program doesn’t penetrate the private life that Reed guards tenaciously, even ignoring the relationship with artist-musician Laurie Anderson that the love-struck singer has rhapsodized about elsewhere.

“Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart” ends with an affectionate tribute to Warhol’s “screen tests,” with the show’s interview subjects staring into the camera until something gives. In the original Lou Reed test from the ‘60s, he never flinches, which pretty much sums him up.

* “Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart” airs on “American Masters” at 10 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28.

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