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Lou Reed - Lou Reed's Berlin

  by Sophie Hall

published: 22 / 8 / 2008

Lou Reed - Lou Reed's Berlin


Dismissed as a failure upon its release in 1973, Lou Reed did not perform his masterwork 'Berlin' album for 33 years. Sophie Hall examines Julian Schnabel's compelling new concert documentary which found Reed at St Anns' Warehouse in Brooklyn triumphantly performing 'Berlin' for the first time

“Lou Reed recorded the album 'Berlin 'in 1973. It was a commercial failure. Over the next 33 years, he never performed the album live. For five nights in December 2006 at St. Anns' Warehouse, Brooklyn, Lou Reed performed his masterwork about love’s dark sisters; jealousy, rage and loss.” It is this opening paragraph that paves the way for Julian Schnabel’s concert documentary film on what is quite regularly critically panned as Lou Reed’s most "depressing album." And for such a pessimistic introduction to the next 85 minutes - the poignant words do certainly effect the viewer in the desired way. Let’s face it - we’re in for a rough ride. Bathed in copious amounts of green light that reflect the wisdom on Lou Reed’s aged yet still determined face - Schnabel’s direction automatically gives the film an aura of rejection, bitterness and demonstrates the sorrow of which the music so heavily tries to articulate with its screeching orchestras, and Reed’s mournful vocals. You may want to try watching this film with a heavy tub of ice cream to counter the morose flavourings the film gradually will ease into your system. For an album that contains the sorrowful cries of children being torn away from their mother, you would be right to assume that it sounds a bit like Lou Reed got out of the wrong side of the bed that day. So is it worth 85 minutes of despondent deprivation ? Well most certainly. It is in this respec tas it is necessary to make this film somewhat momentous to fully represent how overlooked an album 'Berlin' really was. It is not just watching a concert however - the live performance is with swift regularity interspersed with projected moving images created to encapsulate Lou Reed’s rock opera about the tragedy of Caroline,who is played by Emmanuel Seigner, and her various loves and the misfortunes that shaped her life. It can be seen in Lou Reed’s eyes - 33 years of holding back a musical triumph. But yet the performance of the music is still controlled - and opens humbly, with the gentle strums of an acoustic guitar and the softly sung harmonies of a choir. Yet as the almost meagre lyrics of 'Berlin' grace the stage…and their humble casual tones - (“In Berlin by the wall/You were five foot ten inches tall/It was very nice/candlelight and Dubonnet on ice”) there is a tragedy which surges through every piano chord. A pre-emptive to the sadness which will eventually carry through the album. Once the drums kick in - it is as if we have been transported back to 1973 - and Reed can finally present the album the way in which he intended before being knocked down by the unforgiving critics. The silent images of Seigner that blend in to Lou Reed’s stage performance add to the film - changing it from "just another stage performance recorded for DVD" to something slightly more significant. Anyone can film a concert, but not everyone can turn it into a film. The attention to detail derived from Reed’s music right up to the choice of lighting signifies Schnabel’s dedication to the album. The appearance of Antony from Antony and the Johnsons also adds a modern twist to the classic - with Lou Reed cracking a rare smile at his companion during the number of songs they sing together on stage. Antony’s soulful vocals match Reed’s sorrowful ones and the pair obviously both deeply respect one another’s music. For an album that is constantly cited as ‘depressing’ and then some, there is a lot of power and at some points mainstream panache hidden within the flaming guitars and infectious piano chords. It is in some ways a deep shame that Reed had to be made feel like this was a failure. It is far from that. It’s a triumph. Just don’t forget the tub of ice cream, and you’ll see that too.

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Lou Reed - Lou Reed's Berlin

Lou Reed - Lou Reed's Berlin

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