The most epic musical moment at this year’s South by Southwest Festival was a Lou Reed tribute extravaganza, a tented Texan sweatfest that saw the guest of honor publicly kissing Moby on the cheek (!) and a string of cover- song mini-sets from rock stalwarts Yo La Tengo, Thurston Moore, and My Morning Jacket. Invariably, Lou’s homage-payers gravitated toward no-fail classics (i.e. “Pale Blue Eyes,” “Candy Says,” “I’m Not a Young Man Anymore” in title alone), but singer-songwriterly type Mark Kozelek went for the quadruple Axel of Reed covers: “The Kids,” a desolate doozy from Reed’s tragic opus Berlin, about a “miserable rotten slut” mother getting her children taken away. Amid SXSW’s jubilant air of free booze and paid vacation, the tune went over about as well as the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” at a wedding reception: Everybody run for the bar.
Berlin is not a record for schmoozing and sun. It’s a concept record best savored in solitary, in the fetal position, while slurping on a bottle of wine. The doomed love story of addicts Jim and Caroline, Berlin‘s 10 songs cycle through the couple’s initial drug-euphoric enchantment, their violent betrayals, their fatal collapse. But when the album first came out in 1973, as the startlingly somber follow-up to Reed’s Bowie-produced glam-rock triumph Transformer (“Walk on the Wild Side”), Berlin was largely dismissed as a creative and commercial flop, an indulgent fallout from Reed’s messy first divorce.
Things change: 30 years later, pieces of the Berlin Wall are for sale on the Internet, and Lou’s German-junkie ode has been recast as a masterpiece. Reed had never performed Berlin live in full until 2006, with a landmark five-day stretch at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Director/artist Julian Schnabel brought cameras to commit the performance to celluloid; the record’s original producer, Bob Ezrin, was enlisted to oversee. Redemption all around.
The result is Lou Reed’s Berlin, a concert film by technicality, a cinematic trance in practicality. True to its source material, this is a mood piece. From the noisy cabaret confusion of wistful opener “Berlin” to the affecting coda “Sad Song,” we are adrift in a live Lou Reed performance that Schnabel has captured in grainy-film reverie, all flickering silhouettes, soft-focus flourishes, and dreamy sepia tones. Onstage, the band stands before a backdrop that Schnabel made to evoke the residential hotel where Caroline lives in “Lady Day”—beneath a tawny-green pattern, Lou looks imprisoned by mildew fractals and water stains. Projections also flutter behind him, interpretive scenes shot by Schnabel’s daughter Lola that end up interspersed within the film’s final cut. This is where we meet Caroline, a carefree, grinning, drooly-mouthed blonde with bicep bruises and high eyes, played—or, more accurately, mimed—by French actress Emmanuelle Seigner. One minute, the infamously irascible Reed is onstage actually smiling, the next Seigner’s arm-in-arm with some doofus in a Betty Boop shirt. When it comes to films spun off soundtracks, essaying visuals can be pretty worrisome—ever seen Oliver Stone’s The Doors? Thankfully, Schnabel uses these pseudo-narrations sparingly: In the end, ambience is the only plot, atmosphere Reed’s only worthy co-star.
Yes, this may be Lou Reed’s Berlin, but it’s more a bygone New York experience than having a subway bum puke on your lap. For one, Reed and Schnabel are both such uniquely 800-pound New York gorillas, they belong in the Bronx Zoo. For two, Berlin was just a handy “metaphor”—Reed told the Times he’d never been back then—and what better fractured-relationship trope than a Cold War locus with an impenetrable wall and an east/west divide? Then there are the tremendous back-up singers, local vocal belters who embody pre-McHattan archetypes far better than, say, fucking Vampire Weekend: retro-soul queen Sharon Jones, who not long ago was redeemed after years as a Rikers correction officer; Antony Hegarty, the androgynous canary and early-’00s downtown cabaret fixture who’s something of a polite Jayne County. And as for that atmosphere, Schnabel somehow magically makes the subdued hues of St. Ann’s feel like a grand loft space. So after Berlin gets a standing ovation and Reed segues into the “Rock Minuet” from 2000’s Ecstasy, sing-speaking about slitting a perp’s throat in an alley off Avenue B, it doesn’t come off like his mind has returned from some faraway place to reclaim a lost medal. It seems like he just never left.