“Lou Reed’s Berlin” – 2008 Tribeca Film Festival Review

Lou Reed’s 1973 album Berlin was the highly anticipated follow-up to the previous year’s Transformer, the wildly popular David Bowie-produced record that garnered the massive hit “Walk on the Wild Side” and successfully reinvented Reed as a glam-rock icon. It was no surprise, then, when critics and the public first heard Berlin, that many were baffled by his decision to deliver a dark, tragic song cycle of a couple (named Catherine and Jim on the album) indulging themselves with drugs, sexual escapades, and various other vices against the backdrop of the titular city. There were a few rapturous critical notices: a reviewer for Rolling Stone magazine predicted that Berlin would be that era’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Indeed, in that time of the rise of FM album rock, the concept album was a frequent artistic mode indulged in by the more ambitious rock acts. However, the general consensus was that Reed had sunk his burgeoning solo career with an ill-advised, self-indulgent and depressing album.

Perhaps for this reason, Reed had never performed this song cycle live in concert until 33 years later in 2006. Over a few nights at St. Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, he performed this album in its entirety (with a few songs added for the occasion). The concerts were filmed by Julian Schnabel, and the result is the compelling documentary “Lou Reed’s Berlin.”

Schnabel did more than simply record the performance: he also conceived the set design, which simulates an artfully dilapidated hotel room, and included impressionistic short films (filmed by Schnabel’s daughter Lola) projected behind Reed and his band. Some of these pieces dramatize scenes from the story told in Berlin, and star Emmanuelle Seigner (who also appeared in Schnabel’s last film “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) as Catherine. The video pieces are sometimes superimposed over the performers in ways reminiscent of Schnabel’s paintings. However, these visual distractions are ultimately less impressive than the performance itself, which is presented in its entirety and not broken with backstage banter or other elements that usually break the continuity in other concert films. As someone unfamiliar with this particular set of songs before viewing the film, I was quite impressed with how beautifully this music holds up, and this feeling is enhanced with the evident joy and exuberance expressed by Reed in his performances, backed by his excellent band, some of whom have accompanied Reed in concert and on record for many years.

The concert also features such notable guest performers as Sharon Jones, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and Antony of Antony and the Johnsons. Antony’s performance on “Candy Says,” a Velvet Underground number not on the original album (and referring to Warhol Factory stalwart Candy Darling), provides the film’s best sequence. Antony’s inimitable, delicately quavering tenor complements Reed’s weathered, gravelly voice perfectly, and the tears we see in Reed’s eyes at the end of the song give this performance a startling emotional frisson.

Although Schnabel insists on being considered as a painter who occasionally makes films rather than the other way around, with “Diving Bell” and now “Lou Reed’s Berlin,” he has proven himself to be quite a formidable filmmaker.

“Lou Reed’s Berlin” screens May 1 and 2 at the Tribeca Film Festival and opens in New York at Film Forum on July 18.