This review was originally published on the movie blog Cinematical on July 18, 2008.
One thing you should know about the Julian Schnabel-directed concert documentary Lou Reed’s Berlin (aka Berlin: Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse or simply titled Berlin) is that Lou Reed has personally instructed theaters to play the film at concert-level volume. That means it’s really, really loud. When I saw it (at NYC’s Film Forum, which is following Reed’s command throughout the film’s limited engagement), an elder woman walked out. Of course, I can’t be sure that it was due to the sound, though the exit was during one of the loudest songs.
The volume may seem excessive and unnecessary to some, but at a time when concert docs are shown in IMAX and/or in 3D, it really helps a film like Lou Reed’s Berlin compete for audiences seeking a filmic experience comparable to the real thing. And leaving the theater with your ears ringing will help you think that you were actually there when Reed performed his 1973 album Berlin live for the first (and second, third and fourth) time in Brooklyn, New York, December 14-17, 2006.
Mention of Berlin‘s initial critical and commercial failure (though little of its eventual celebration) appears quickly at the head of the film, introduced by Schnabel (Oscar-nominated director of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), who claims the rock opera was the soundtrack to his life since 1974. For those of us not around at the time, it’s hard to believe the record was so universally panned and disregarded. In retrospect, it not only doesn’t sound that much a departure from Reed’s previous, highly successful album, Transformer (especially considering 1975’s Machine Metal Music, which is downright unlistenable), it holds up pretty well today against similarly epic-sounding art-rock bands, especially Arcade Fire.
Perhaps Berlin was ahead of its time. Or maybe Reed just should have begun performing the album right away; with the kind of supporting talent he brought to St. Ann’s Warehouse that weekend in 2006. I’d like to meet the rock critic who could speak negatively of the grand execution of “Caroline Says I.” I’d also like to meet the person who doesn’t feel emotional during “The Bed,” a song about suicide that, in the concert/film, prominently features a dozen, mostly female teens from The Brooklyn Youth Chorus, who all appear to be on the verge of tears while singing backup.
In addition to the girls (a few of whom seem creepily more zoomed in on than others), Reed’s 35-piece support includes guitarist Steve Hunter, who also performed on the album, soul singer Sharon Jones (of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings) and British torch singer Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons). In one of the three non-Berlin numbers performed in the film, Antony duets with Reed on the Velvet Underground song “Candy Says,” and it’s definitely the highlight of both the concert and the documentary. Nothing more could be different about the two vocalists: Antony is young, pretty, cherubic, highly emotive and [their] voice is smooth and beautiful (in my notes I compared Antony’s voice to a theremin and noted that [they] even move as though [they’re] playing one); Reed is old, thin, wrinkled, stone-faced and his voice is, of course, grungy and gritty as hell.
While that contrast is amazing in its effect, the accordance of Reed’s appearance and the film’s cinematography (by Ellen Kuras, who also shot the memorable concert docs Dave Chapelle’s Block Party and Neil Young: Heart of Gold) is also quite remarkable. In close-up, the rocker looks as textured and layered as his songs, thanks to his deep facial lines and the graininess of the picture. Of course, this isn’t the kind of film that’s meant to be too notable for how artfully it’s shot. What’s more important is how well the concert is documented, as Reed and his backers are the real attraction. Fortunately, Schnabel’s camera operators (including Kuras and award-winning DP Declan Quinn) and his editor, Benjamin Flaherty, manage to show us everything we want and need to see as a concert attendee.
Where Schnabel goes wrong with the film is where he deviates from presenting the concert as we might have seen it in person. For the concert, he had his daughter, Lola Schnabel, shoot an accompanying film that dramatizes the character and events of Lou Reed’s album (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly‘s Emmanuelle Seigner stars as “Caroline”). As part of the concert, projected on the wall behind the band, the literalness of this music video is fine. As is other footage shot by Alejandro Garmendia. But featured more prominently, intercut with the concert footage, these short films, unfortunately, detract and distract.
Otherwise, once again a concert documentary allows those of us unable to have witnessed a monumental event (all four nights of Reed’s Berlin concerts immediately sold out, of course) to see it, seemingly, exactly as it took place. And while it’s not broadcast live via satellite to your local multiplex, as some concerts now are, or shown on the biggest screen imaginable, or enhanced with eye-popping 3D effects, do yourself a favor and check out Lou Reed’s Berlin in a theater if you’re able to do so. And not just for the concert-level sound, which you might be able to replicate with the DVD and your home theater system, but also for the benefit of sharing the experience with other concertgoers — I mean moviegoers.