Sunday, March 30, 2008

Movie Notes: Lou Reed: Berlin (2008)

Jim and Caroline fell in love, probably in Berlin. They had children together and lived together. But there were problems: he was on speed and had some lousy friends and she did too. Plus she was making it with everybody she met and he was beating her. But, in the end, they took away her children and she killed herself, so it sort of has a happy ending. Jim's still around.

It's not hard to see why Lou Reed was reluctant to play Berlin live or why it recieved mixed reactions when it was released. Some writers accused Reed of mysogyny and worse. To me, this is like accusing Dostoyevsky of killing old women: Berlin is an extended, and very dark story. It's sort of what might happen if Kurt Weil and William Burroughs played together in a rock band. That's a pretty lame description, but maybe it captures how weird, dark, musically-complex, and literary Berlin is. It's probably Lou Reed's masterpiece, although I prefer Transformer.

Anyway, along with every other old rock musician, Reed is now willing to give his old songs another chance. With Brian Wilson, the dream-come-true of hearing his brilliant Smile played all the way through was perhaps a bit marred by his current voice, which reminded me of Bill Murray's lounge singer character. With Lou Reed, it's hard to imagine a diet of sulfuric acid changing his voice any, and besides, he's still Lou Fucking Reed, so I'm all for letting him play whatever he wants to.

The movie was filmed by Julian Schnabel live at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn. In addition to the band, complete with string section, horns, and choir, there are short films projected throughout the concert. Finally, we get to see Jim and Caroline, although mostly Emmanuelle Seigner as Caroline. Jim was really just the waterboy anyway. The set design is also by Schnabel and his daughter Lola shot the short films.

Berlin is still a somewhat overwhelming experience. Two people left the theatre in Marseille, not to return. I suspect it might have been the content, as one left after the line "beat her black and blue and get it straight". Lou Reed didn't really write a lot of happy songs. Oh, but his sad songs are so beautiful! And the euphoric playing by the live band makes Berlin transcendant- especially since many of the songs here are in the longer versions not included on the original record (the company refused to issue Berlin as a double album). And when I got to see Lou Reed losing himself in "Men of Good Fortune" or "Caroline Says (II)", well, "honey it was paradise!" Even if it is a story about hell.

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