Lou Reeds album Berlin was a critical and commercial flop when it was released in 1973. Compared with the big success of the David Bowie-produced glam-rock Transformer the previous year, the tragic love story of two young drug addicts in Berlin was seen as unremittingly depressing.
Later, however, with its richly poignant lyrics and broodingly atmospheric music, Berlin came to be regarded as a classic. And in December 2006, Reed performed the whole album live for the first time at St. Annes Warehouse, Brooklyn, where the concert was filmed by Julian Schnabel.
Schnabel riding high on his recent Golden Globe-winning The Diving Bell and the Butterfly seems the perfect choice to direct the movie. A long-time friend of Reed and fellow New Yorker, this artist turned filmmaker evidently empathizes with Reeds gloomy storyline and orchestral art-rock style.
Using five cameras, Schnabel eschews any fancy trickery and concentrates on delivering a sensitive record of a gig turned into an event after 33 years of waiting. The result is unlikely to make any new converts but will delight Reed fans especially if they have been unable to get tickets for the subsequent Berlin world tour.
Schnabel designed the stage set for the show, evoking a crumbling Berlin hotel where the relationship of the protagonists likewise fragments. His daughter Lola provided home-movie-style images on a back screen, with Emmanuelle Seigner (Mrs Roman Polanski and Diving Bell star) playing the self-destructive heroin-addicted heroine Caroline. However, these narrative additions add very little to and even distract from – the main feature, which is of course the musical performance itself.
Reeds rock band (including original Berlin lead guitarist Steve Hunter) is enhanced by a seven-piece orchestra and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, plus cameos from soul/funk diva Sharon Jones and Antony (and the Jonsons) Hegarty, who duet with Reed, the latter somewhat outshining the main man.
While occasionally filling the screen with his daughters accompanying video projections, Schnabel usually focuses on the band and especially on Reed himself while not the most dynamic of performers, Reed here seems to be enjoying himself, even smiling at times, though it is clear this is a cathartic experience for him. Interestingly, although partially audible, the appreciative audience does not get a look-in, with those on stage the centre of attention throughout.
Unlike classic rock-concert movies such as Gimme Shelter, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars or The Last Waltz, this film is pure gig with no backstage interviews or other kind of context. While losing out on breadth and variety, this obviously allows Schnabel to devote all his energies to capturing the feeling of the live performance and he certainly captures the intimacy of the occasion.
It has to be said that the recent in-yer-face flashiness of Scorseses Shine a Light and U23D was a lot more exciting, though this is not really comparing like with like as Reed is a more restrained performer than the Rolling Stones or U2, and Berlin shows him in his most subdued mood. If you like a more intense, more reflective rock experience then this concert movie will quietly satisfy.