In the brief introduction to the concert film Lou Reed's Berlin (released on DVD by the Weinstein Company as Lou Reed: Berlin), fine artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel (Butterfly and the Diving Bell) claims Lou Reed's titular 1973 rock opera as the soundtrack to his life. This is a rather startling admission given the album's dour subject matter: a woman fatally undone by poverty, domestic violence, drug abuse, prostitution and suicide.
Though Schnabel would have us believe that the reason Berlin was never performed live in its entirety before he staged it was because the album was a misunderstood masterpiece, that's wrong on at least two counts. First, Berlin had mixed critical and commercial success upon release getting a solid endorsement from rock critic extraordinaire Lester Bangs and hitting #7 on the British charts (Reed's best ever UK success). Second, Berlin is a big production that demands a large ensemble of backup musicians. It's not the kind of show that one mounts lightly for a small venue tour, thus it's hardly surprising that Reed was content to have it remain a studio album until Schnabel sought to mount the concert film.
Recorded over five nights in December 2006 at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York, Reed had 35 musicians backing him including a rock band with guitarist Steve Hunter (who performed on the 1973 recording), a brass section, and a vocals section that included soul/funk-revivalist Sharon Jones (of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings), English torch-singer Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons), and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
The rock opera is told from the perspective of Jim, the stoic survivor of a tempestuous, doomed relationship with Caroline. With the trim body and measured keel of an ascetic, the 64-year-old Reed gruffly delivers in verse almost bereft of intonation Jim's story of romance strangled by grimly brutish reality.
Not content to present Berlin as a conventional concert film, Schnabel attempts to match the moodiness of the music through staging and cinematography. The set design prominently features a curtain behind the performers upon which arty Super-8 music videos made by Schnabel's daughter Lulu are projected. The footage puts images to Reed's words. As the visuals seamlessly slip back and forth from the concert hall to a dreamy '70s West Berlin, we catch glimpses of Caroline mimed by the sultry French actress Emmanuelle Seigner (Butterfly and the Diving Bell). Though employing four cameras, cinematographer Ellen Kuras (Neil Young: Heart of Gold) generally keeps the framing close and the focus off-kilter on the concert footage.
In addition to performing the entire ten song cycle of Berlin, Reed provides three encores: the even darker "Rock Minuet" from his 2000 album Ecstasy; a duet with Antony Hegarty, that's the high point of the show, on "Candy Says" from the Velvet Underground's self-titled 1968 album; and, "Sweet Jane" from the Velvet Underground's 1970 album Loaded.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic image looks so good it's difficult to find shortcomings. Schnabel purposefully plays up the greens in his set design and Super-8 footage and frequently chooses soft focus over hard for aesthetic reasons, thus it's hard to find anything amiss that's not of his choosing. For standard DVD, Berlin probably looks as good as it can, though it's disappointing that the UK got a Blu-ray release and the United States did not since I have no doubt that Reed's timeworn visage, if nothing else, would reveal even more complexity on Blu-ray than it does on DVD.
The 5.1 DD audio is so well engineered I was able to pinpoint exactly which horn from the brass section I didn't care for on "Lady Day". The soundscape is dynamic and immersive.
Subtitles are available in English for the hearing impaired for the entire concert, or Spanish for Schnabel's introduction only.
Extras include the theatrical trailer, Berlin on Tour (letterboxed, 6:23) a behind-the-scenes look at the international tour; an excerpt from Spectacle: Elvis Costello with Lou Reed & Julian Schnabel (anamorphic, 4:57) in which they discuss the origins of this concert film; and, trailers for other Weinstein Company releases in the Miriam Collection.
Though the gloomy songs and artsy presentation of Lou Reed's Berlin might be able to attract a few new fans, this concert film will mostly appeal only to Reed's existing fan base. While viewers looking for a standard concert film may wish to look elsewhere, Reed fans ready for an immersive dark cabaret experience should be well pleased.