I guess I never was that good at knowing what was popular and what wasn't. In my defence all I can say is that my tastes were formed at a young age and I was doomed into a kind of elitist snobbery before I was even old enough to know better. It's really my older brother's fault you see, not mine. It was his record collection that I first started mining in search of musical gems, and I can't be blamed for his liking everything from Tom T. Hall to Jimi Hendrix can I?
It was in his collection that I first discovered Nashville Skyline, Music From Big Pink, The Basement Tapes, Pearl, and people with names like Jerry Jeff Walker, Kris Kristofferson, Arlo Guthrie, Earl Scruggs & Lester Flatt, and some guy named Hank Williams.
So at the same time that most of my friends - this was 1974 -75 - were starting to get into disco and whatever else was being pushed on the popular radio of the time, I was developing a taste for music that nobody else I knew listened to. I didn't do it on purpose as I was completely at my brother's mercy when it came to music. I could either learn to like what he played in our basement, or go upstairs and hang out with my parents.
Of course there were times when I was able to explore his record collection on my own, and it was during one of those expeditions that I stumbled across a very singular record that was simply called Berlin. I suppose most people's first exposure to Lou Reed was either by hearing "Walk On The Wild Side" or "Sweet Jane" on the radio, but for me it was the beautiful horror of listening to Caroline's fall into junkie oblivion over the two sides of that record that introduced me to his genius. I'm sure part of the attraction was the fact that it talked openly about drug use and sex, subjects that in the early seventies were still mainly taboo and would naturally attract the attention of a twelve year old male on the cusp of puberty.
Of course it was more than my recently inflamed hormones getting a few cheap thrills, as the music was intense and the lyrics had a kind brooding poetry to them that drew you into the story with a kind of seductive charm. In many ways Berlin was a darker version of the Christopher Isherwood stories that formed the basis for the movie Cabaret, as the album explored the life and downfall of a free spirited woman living in Berlin in the days of The Wall.
Sally Bowles' story was played out in the cabarets of Berlin during the rise of the Nazi's in the 1930's, so Cabaret was infused with the knowledge that the hammer was about to fall on these people's freedom at any moment. Caroline on the other hand was trapped in an island - West Berlin was in the middle of East Germany after all - where the people were at mercy of others for everything. The memory of the post war airlift conducted by the allies to feed the people of West Berlin after WW 2 when Stalin ordered the borders of East Germany sealed in an attempt to snatch all of Berlin for Soviet Russia, was a constant reminder of their isolation. There would have been a kind of hot-house desperation among the people living there, leading them to push themselves to find newer and more exciting ways to keep themselves amused. It was exactly that atmosphere that Lou Reed recreated with his music and lyrics on the Berlin album.
Not exactly top forty material I guess, but I was still surprised to find out that the album was a commercial failure when it was released back in 1973 as not even Lou Reed fans, or former fans of The Velvet Underground, were interested in hearing about the dark side of life as depicted on Berlin. In fact it was so unpopular that Lou had never performed the album in public until 2006 when he collaborated with director and painter Julian Schnabel to stage it for five nights at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn New York. Lou was joined on stage by a seven piece orchestra, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and individual performers like Antony of Antony and the Johnsons. It's this staged production that's been captured on film and is now being released as Lou Reed's Berlinby Artificial Eye on DVD and Blu-ray October 27th/08 in the UK, and on September 30th in the US by the Miriam Collection.
For lack of a better term you would have to call this a concert movie, but it's a concert like no other concert you've seen. The musicians are performing against a backdrop that looks like the floral wallpaper of a hotel that was elegant in the 1920's but has long since gone to seed. Periodically through-out the performance film is projected onto the wallpaper/screen depicting scenes in Caroline's life that are being described in the songs. The films are by Lola Schnabel, and Caroline is played by Emmanuelle Seigner, and they depict, with the stark beauty that only black and white silent movies have, Caroline's decline from faded beauty to oblivion.
Of course the main focus is what's going on in front of the screen on the stage, and Lou doesn't disappoint. Far too often people have taken rock music and tried to turn it into something it's not by orchestrating it and utilizing choirs for effect and you end up with a pretentious mess because the music didn't have the substance in the first place to merit that type of consideration. That's not the case here, as the music of Berlin is ideally suited to being fleshed out by the additional voices and instruments. Even better is the way the various new elements have been incorporated into the original score.
The use of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus is a good example of this as not only do they provide background vocals when appropriate, their voices are also used to create atmosphere at various points throughout the production. At one point in particular instead of singing lyrics they begin a chant that adds an extra layer of sound/rhythm to the song being performed that helps build the intensity of the moment. It's done with such subtlety that you almost don't notice what they are doing until they stop and the absence of sound is so powerful that it takes your breath away.
I don't think that you can fully appreciate how potent a duet between Antony, of Antony and the Johnsons, and Lou Reed can be unless you are familiar with Antony's singing voice. He has the beautiful, high and clear, voice of a traditional Irish tenor who sounds like he's singing in order to prevent tears from overwhelming him. When that is combined and contrasted with Lou's almost conversational, nearly deadpan, ironic delivery the effect is devastating. While Lou's voice challenges you to find anything emotional in the material he's singing, Antony's voice is at the other end of the spectrum, supercharged with emotional energy. Listening to them sing together is like hearing a dispassionate news-reader and a relative of someone who has just died in a tragic accident, recounting the same incident.
Julian Schnabel has done a magnificent job of capturing the staging of Berlin on film. The camera always seems to be in the right place at the right time, capturing the one thing that we want to see most at that moment. Whether it's a close up of a young choir singer's face as she closes her eyes in concentration and moves her head to the beat of the music, capturing the bowing technique of the bass player, or pulling back for us to receive the full impact of the band and the movie playing out on the backdrop working together, all the shots are perfect. It's hard enough filming a concert movie, but not only has he done that wonderfully, he has also managed to capture the theatricality of the event so we are able to enjoy the full impact of the performance.
This might just be a case of being there is the next best thing to the DVD and not the other way around, as Schnabel captures elements with the camera that we wouldn't have been able to pick up in person. In particular look for the smile in Lou's eyes after he finishes his duet with Antony, it's a small thing, something that you'd have never seen in person. It's almost as if Lou is allowing himself a moment, now that the concert is almost over, to enjoy what has been accomplished on the night; a feeling that's only re-enforced when he and the band swing into "Sweet Jane" as the encore for the evening, and they are simply a rock band again cutting loose on an old favourite: The "performance" is over, now let's have some fun.
The version of the DVD I was sent to review didn't come with special features, but the full version will include a forty minute or so interview with Lou presumably about the staging of Berlin, and the packaging will also include lyrics for all the songs. Needless to say the sound is top quality, either 5.1 surround or Dolby Digital 2.0, and it comes in wide screen format. For a change those of us in North America will be getting this earlier then they are in the UK as it's released here on September 30th/08 while in England, Artificial Eye's DVD and Blu-ray versions won't be available until October 27th/08.
Berlin may not have been a commercial success when it was released in 1973, but it was a brilliant artistic accomplishment. The DVD, Lou Reed's Berlin is a reminder of just how brilliant it was. It is an opportunity to see and listen to a man who really was years ahead of everyone else, and is still leaving them bobbing in his wake.
(Originally posted September 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.