Not a success during it’s first release in 1973, Lou Reed rarely performed any songs from the album during his live shows. In 2006 however, accompanied by a 30 piece band and 12 choristers, he did a touring his tragic rock opera across the United States. Julian Schnabel, best known for his plate art and the wonderful, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly took the opportunity to film the event during a five night stint at St. Ann’s Warehouse, in Brooklyn. He further incorporated some found and created footage by himself and his daughter, notably using Emmanuelle Seigner in various vignettes as the ill-fated Caroline. It’s an interesting touch that enriches the performances, and is especially effective because of it’s scarcity.
I haven’t seen many concert films in my life, it’s difficult for me to judge this against others of it’s type. It has the advantage that I like Lou Reed a hellavalot, and even though Berlin has never been one of my favourite albums it certainly benefits from the live show… and I don’t think I’ve yet to listen to a Reed album I don’t enjoy on some level. The band is very strong and it’s impossible for me to choose a standout. Every last person contributes at some point or another, and is given the opportunity to shine just a little brighter. It’s clear how much work and team effort went into putting together this performance and the end results are quite spectacular. Reed himself is a rather restrained performer, and some have criticized him for not showing the same passion as some of his contemporaries. I have to agree outright, because while Reed doesn’t have a flair for the dramatic or a very theatrical presence, it’s difficult to take your eyes off him. His focus and passion seem to channel right through to the chords of the guitar rather through the movement of his body, but even then, there are lapses like the very emotional Caroline Says II and The Kids. While I appreciate a sort of exuberance from musicians, I also like Reed’s restraint, and they really do service these two songs in particular. One almost feels as if Caroline herself is being held back, trying to hold back the tears, trying not to cry. It’s truly heartbreaking.
An interesting concert film, though, I can’t imagine it having much to offer for someone who isn’t fond of Reed’s music. Though it tries something new, it never falls for the gimmick, allowing the artistry of the words and music take full force. Berlin is an extremely heart wrenching opera of sex, drugs, abuse and family and how it all comes together to tear at the character’s lives. I might have to revisit the album detached from the film, because I truly think I underestimated it the first time I listened to it.