More than three decades after its original release, Lou Reed has finally made good on a long dormant plan to adapt his 1973 album Berlin for the concert stage. In December, 2006, Reed spent five nights performing the album's ten songs for an appreciative New York City audience. The event was filmed for a theatrical release, directed by Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), and the DVD of that film, Berlin is now available. The results are decidedly mixed: great music, but flawed visual presentation.
Performing Berlin live was certainly a good idea. Along with 1992's Magic and Loss (a masterful song cycle about the death of two friends), Berlin is Reed's most cohesively structured lyrical narrative. The story is simple: two lovers marry and have children, though drugs, violence, and infidelity eventually ruin their lives. Musically, the album is a bit of an odd duck in the Lou Reed canon.
Loaded with musicians (including horns, a choir, and a ton of session players), it's considerably overproduced. Reed barely plays on the entire record, and the bombast threatens to overwhelm the project. I prefer the stripped down rock of Reed's latter era (especially from 1989's New York and beyond). The music, as presented in the concert film, is an interesting blend, adding substantial rock grit while maintaining the ambiance of the 1973 recording. Reed plays guitar, backed by his longtime rhythm section of Fernando Saunders on bass and Tony "Thunder" Smith on drums. These guys, along with guitarist Mike Rathke, have been touring together since 1996 and are as tight a rock combo as I've witnessed.
Though Rathke is absent, in his place is Steve Hunter. This provides a neat bit of historical continuity, as Hunter was the lead guitarist on the Berlin album (and toured with Reed in the '70s). The main quartet is supplemented by a wide array of musicians, including a horn section, strings, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and backing vocalists. Also present are Rupert Christie on keyboards and Rob Wasserman (Reed's bassist in the early '90s) on stand-up bass.
After a very brief introduction, Reed and company take the stage and perform the album's ten songs in about an hour. The arrangements are tight and Reed is focused in his intensity. As with his entire body of work, those unfamiliar to Reed's vocal style might have to adjust to his delivery. Throughout his forty-odd year career, Reed has defined – perhaps more than anyone in popular music – the "art" of non-singing. As his voice deepened and his range narrowed, Reed arrived at a half-speak/half-sing style not far removed from that of George Burns (albeit much darker).
Though I feel he conveys the emotional content of the songs effectively, there will always be those who can't get past the unconventional vocals. One of the strengths of the performance on this DVD is that Reed invests the lyrics with a deeply felt sense of gravity. His phrasing, often erratic, is more focused than usual. His atonal, distorted guitar soloing offers a dramatic counterpoint to Hunter's cleaner leads. Some songs, like "Men Of Good Fortune," rock drastically harder than the album version. "How Do You Think It Feels" is underscored by an earthy groove – a result of the rhythm section's longtime association.
As for the climatic series of painfully sad songs that constitute the album's final act, a spellbinding atmosphere is cast. Children crying for their mother are heard during "The Kids," as gut-wrenchingly as on the album. "The Bed" is bolstered by Reed's most delicate vocal. And the extended instrumental section of "Sad Song" manages to feel simultaneously celebratory and resigned to defeat.
Unfortunately, Schnabel included some rather banal film footage throughout the performance instead of simply trusting the strength of the material. The album's central character, Caroline, is portrayed by an actress (Emmanuelle Seigner). The footage was apparently projected during the songs on curtains behind the stage. These visuals don't really contribute anything valuable. While the overall focus remains on the Reed and the other musicians, I could've done without these distractions. Even worse, Schnabel occasionally attempts a sort of psychedelic approach during portions of some songs, with the picture turning a weird color and going into a strobe-like effect. Why? I guess he thought it looked cool. Thankfully, this nonsense is limited to relatively brief segments. Still, the overall presentation would've been stronger without any of it.
Since the Berlin setlist only lasts about one hour, more material was needed to make this a feature-length film. A little historical context by way of interviews might have been a nice way to precede the concert, or maybe even a little glimpse at the rehearsal process. Instead, we are treated to a mixed bag of encore songs.
Reed dips back into his Velvet Underground catalog for "Candy Says." The lead vocal is handled by Antony Hegarty, who contributes backing vocals elsewhere during the performance. Hegarty has sung this with Reed before (on the live album Animal Serenade), and he has a nice voice. But the mood of "Candy Says" doesn't really fit with the Berlin material. Besides, when I watch a Lou Reed concert movie I want to hear Lou Reed. Next up is a much more recent song, "Rock Minuet," from 2000's Ecstasy.
This is a great song, but for a much better peformance – showcasing Fernando Saunders' incredible bass playing – see Lou Reed – Live at Montreux, 2000. Finally, and inevitably, Reed kicks into "Sweet Jane," over which the end credits roll. "Sweet Jane" is to Lou Reed what "Satisfaction" is to The Rolling Stones. He always plays it, and it's almost always the same somnambulistic reading.
The DVD itself is technically excellent. The widescreen presentation is rich and clear. There is a satifyingly full-bodied Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The special features are extremely disappointing. There is a five minute excerpt from an interview with Lou Reed and Julian Schnabel, conducted by Elvis Costello, that comes very close to saying literally nothing at all. Besides that, there is the promisingly titled "Berlin On Tour" that turns out to be only six minutes long.
Combining some entirely unenlightening shots of stage gear being set up with a pair of 30-second clips of Reed onstage in Europe, this feature is a waste of time. Reed took the Berlin stage show on the road for a European tour in 2007, and this six minute montage (complete with closing credits) is all we get to see. The theatrical trailer is also present to round off a very uninspired set of extras. Berlin is worth a viewing for fans, but it ultimately could've been so much more.