Lou Reed's Berlin

"Excellent"

Lou Reed's Berlin Review


As the terms and bylaws that differentiate television and film continue to erode, the basic structural differences between the album and the mix tape have all but vanished with the tide. The last few years have seen critical attention turn away from records with broad thematic arcs and toward the simpler idea of a collection of unrelated songs. One needs only to look at the exhaustive output of Lil' Wayne bootlegs and the beguiling popularity of mash-up artist Greg Gillis (aka Girl Talk) to see that the parts have increasingly become more important than the sum in recent years.

Julian Schnabel's engrossing new documentary, Lou Reed's Berlin, is immediately at odds with this mindset. Schnabel prefaces the film with his own interpretation of Lou Reed's famous 1973 commercial failure, an album, as he would have it, about "love's dark sisters: jealousy, rage, and loss". In reality, Berlin was the follow-up to Reed's breakthrough album Transformer, a Bowie-aping glam rock juggernaut. But unlike its widely-loved, commercially successful predecessor, Berlin made hooey at the cash register and was received with mixed critical reaction. Today, many of Reed's most ardent fans consider it his shining hour as a solo artist.

As Schnabel projects his short-film interpretation of the album's heroine Caroline (played by the filmmaker's wife and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly actress Emmanuelle Seigner) over the cramped stage, the former Velvet Underground frontman rips through the tunes with a killer backing band that includes Alice Cooper's axe-man Steve Hunter and bassist Fernando Saunders, not to mention The Brooklyn Youth Chorus. The set, culled from Reed's three-night residency at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse in 2006, also features backing vocals by Antony Hagerty, of torch songsters Antony and the Johnsons, and Sharon Jones, the blazing soul singer who fronts R&B throwbacks the Dap-Kings. The camera work, compliments of the great Ellen Kuras (the films of Michel Gondry, Neil Young: Heart of Gold), responds to the lyrical shifts in Reed's songs with a preternatural swoon of grace. She gets as close as possible to the stoic legend, retreating only when his glance promises an imminent lashing.

If Lou Reed's Berlin is a fond remembrance of the days when a great album was always superior to a great single, it is also a bona fide concert film in a time of filmed concerts. With the notable exceptions of the aforementioned Heart of Gold, Denis Hennelly and Casey Suchan's staggering Rock the Bells, and, to a lesser extent, Martin Scorcese's rambunctious Shine a Light, concerts on the big screen have become just that: Directionless documents of bands playing their hits and nothing much more. Coupled with the thousands of live clips uploaded to YouTube every week, the rare symbiosis of director and live act seems all but extinct. But Schnabel's film is the real deal, a thoughtfully prepared and enacted collaboration of visual style and auditory bliss by two artists who, on the outset, look like they don't even have a species in common.

Like any good Deluxe Edition, Schnabel ends his film with two cuts not on Berlin: "Candy Says" from White Light/White Heat and "Rock Minuet," the standout from his swan song Ecstasy. The former finds Reed getting outright upstaged by Hagerty, who delivers the song's poetic chorus with such lilting elegance that you nearly see Reed well up at one point. In the latter song, however, it's all crazy, rambling Reed in ferocious form, reveling in an elegy for the death of the dangerous NYC. Schnabel and Kuras know their subject enough to know how to frame him: with space, darkness, and unyielding cool. The cool, of course, could have been delivered in an all-white bedroom with stuffed bunnies and posters of High School Musical, as long as Reed was there.



Facts and Figures

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5

Cast & Crew

Director:

Producer: , Tom Sarig

Starring: as Himself

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