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.
Subtitles are available in English for the hearing impaired for the entire concert, or Spanish for Schnabel's introduction only.