Appellate Judge Tom Becker is the waterboy.
When you're looking through the eyes of hate…
For generations of downmarket artists and upmarket junkies, Lou Reed's Berlin was anthemic, a despairing and bitter song cycle that melded equal parts pretense and grandeur. A critical and commercial failure on its release in 1973, Reed never played the entire album live until 2006.
It's not hard to understand why Berlin wasn't a commercial success. It's a depressing affair, telling the story of the doomed and decadent Caroline through the acid recollections of her—lover? Trick? Plaything? We get a sense of the relationship but never specifics. "Caroline says/that I'm just a toy/She needs a man/not just a boy/Oh, Caroline says." Drug-fueled and sado-masochistic, by the end of the album, the once proud and predatory Caroline has been mocked, beaten, abandoned, and had her children taken away (a harrowing track). She ends up committing suicide by cutting her wrists.
The album certainly has its fans, and they love it with intensity. The original vinyl is worth seeking out if only for the booklet with the lyrics illustrated with moody, black-and-white photos of "Caroline" along with the word "Berlin" scrawled in blood red on the reflective surfaces.
Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) has directed Lou Reed: Berlin, a staging of the concert in Brooklyn, NY. When the concert took place it was, needless to say, an event, and Schnabel—who describes Berlin as the soundtrack of his life—certainly plays that up here.
The 1973 album was a lavish production, with an orchestra and a choir, and Reed contributing vocals and acoustic guitar. For the film, we have a stage full of musicians and singers. With everyone perched in front of what appears to be a representation of Caroline's dingy hotel—"It had greenish walls/a bathroom in the hall"—Schnabel's camera focuses on Reed, but also floats about to catch some of the others onstage.
Slightly off-center is Lou, engaged, focused, but looking as though he's not totally comfortable with the whole artist-as-shrine motif. He talks/sings the lyrics, sounding as different as possible from the album. Thirty-five years ago, the story was a little too close, the emotions a little too raw; Berlin was never an album about objectivity. Thirty-five years ago, this was rage and despondence, a furious, brain bumming hangover.
This time, Lou's looking back, and not necessarily in anger. He's a storyteller, here and there assuming the voice of the various characters. This older Lou, while not totally free of the hipster posturings, is less hampered by them, and his take here is reflective, that of a mature man relating an incident from his long-ago youth. He's well supported by the other musicians, though the irony of having the Brooklyn Youth Chorus onstage in their robes seems to have escaped detection.
Schnabel is clearly a fan. Unfortunately, his reverence for the material—and for Reed—is just a little too naked, and it adds an unsettlingly self-conscious layer to the proceedings. He offers us a very literal interpretation of the songs, which tends to make them seem trite. When Reed sings, "Men of good fortune/often cause empires to fall," there's an onstage projection of pictures of soldiers and businessmen. We become aware of the less-than-inspired lyrics that follow: "Men of good fortune/often can't do anything/While men of poor beginnings/often can do anything."
Worse is the contribution of Schnabel's daughter, Lola Montes, who shot her own little film, starring Emmanuelle Seigner (Bitter Moon) as Caroline. The film is projected on the back of the set, though sometimes it's just inserted on the screen over the musicians.
Part of the intrigue of the album was ruminating on who Caroline actually was. Was she based on someone in particular or just an observation? Was she a woman? Was she a drag queen—speculation invited by her line, "You say that you love us/but you only made love to one of us" and the repetition of the word "queen" in the song "Caroline Says I." Or was Reed maybe singing about his many several selves?
With Lola Montes Schnabel's filmette, this Berlin leaves no doubt as to who Caroline is. She's a fairly healthy looking and not especially interesting blonde woman, one who hardly seems worthy of all the fuss. Schnabel fille spares us the less savory aspects of the story, while overly dramatizing other parts, so that at times it's like watching a grade-school performance of "Hiawatha." I'm a little surprised that Reed and Schnabel père went for this. Didn't they realize that once you strip away the poetry and the orchestrations, the story of Berlin is just not that engrossing?
The disc sounds great with a terrific 5.1 Surround track. The video looks a tad worn and grainy in spots—and not the film clips, which are supposed to look that way—but that sort of makes it seem a bit more authentic. For extras, we get an excerpt from Spectacle, a television program with Elvis Costello, in which he discusses the film with Reed and Schnabel, and a featurette about the Berlin European tour. The film's theatrical trailer rounds out the set.
Fans of Lou Reed will want to catch this for the music and Reed's performance but, like me, might find themselves turned off some by the Schnabelization of the whole thing.
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• Excerpt from Spectacle: Elvis Costello interviewing Julian Schnabel and Lou Reed
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