(My first ever film review)
There are few genuine musical happenings anymore. The world has evolved into the kind of interactive place where the musical happening should thrive, but instead it’s succumbed to the corporate clenched fist. Now, instead of Axl and Elton rocking a wet Wembley to bed with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the closest we get to an event is a demand for a public apology to the Jonas Brothers for ridiculing their purity rings.
Lou Reed pisses on that apology. In 2006, the rock pioneer dusted off Berlin, his 1973 rock opera album telling the story of Jim and Caroline, two strung-out lovers and their inevitable downward spiral, and brought it to the live masses with a small orchestra and choir. The Brooklyn concert, Reed’s first in a tour series, was documented by Academy Award–nominated director Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), and the resulting film was recently released on DVD. It was a musical happening as pure as the driven snow, honest and without corporate hindrance, and it was done just because he felt like doing it.
“[The album] didn’t really get a chance for people to hear it,” Reed says about Berlin’s original release during a Q&A at New York City’s Film Forum in July. Coming off his first solo effort, 1972’s breakthroughTransformer, Reed should have been bulletproof. But Berlin, released the following year, was an unmitigated flop, critically and commercially failing to live up to the still-unflagging popularity of “Walk on the Wild Side,” a song musically dissimilar to his other work.
“It’s the other side of ‘Walk on the Wild Side,’?” Reed says. “It’s the real one. Maybe no one wanted to hear or see that. It was in the middle of glam rock and it was a dose of reality – a certain kind of reality.”
Thirty-five years later, Berlin is a cult classic. Reed’s voice isn’t as steady as it used to be, but he easily commands the stage.
“I’d performed a couple of the songs out of context [in past concerts], but the way it really works, for me anyway, is in context,” he says. “I always thought of it as a whole piece.”
Berlin is a concert film at first blush, but as it proceeds, it becomes something closer to the theatrical production Reed intended to produce in the early ’70s. Thanks to the loving orchestration of sequences shot by Lola Schnabel, we see the lives of Jim and Caroline and their struggles with drugs, abuse and suicide coming alive to the pace of the songs. The enchanting Emmanuelle Seigner (also of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) stars as Caroline, the heroine of heroin. The years it took for this project to be fully realized were well worth it in the end, as Berlin digs out a new spot in the conversation of best concert films.