“Typical you wait over three decades for an opportunity to promote your rock opera, and then two come along at once.” Lou Reed may have thought something along these lines about this timely stage and screen premiere of his 1973 concept album Berlin.
Dismissed as a commercial failure after its release, only a few of Berlin’s songs had ever been performed live on stage. Based on the doomed relationship between the bohemien couple Caroline and Jim, against the backdrop of the Cold War torn but still Cabaret-esque city of Berlin, the album is a dark tale of jealousy, drug abuse, domestic violence and moral abasement culminating in Caroline’s suicide after her children are taken into care – Mamma Mia this ain’t. But as it goes with masterpieces, the album has gradually been ‘rehabilitated’ and now justly hailed as one of Reed’s finest works, recently making it into Rolling Stone magazine’s ‘ Greatest Albums of All Time’. Still, it was not until that Reed, urged by friends including film maker Julian Schnabel, finally took his rock opera on a two-year tour. Promoted as a star-studded, multimedia spectacle, the stage version included a set design by Julian Schnabel, a series of short films by Schnabel’s daughter Lola Schnabel starring French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, a string ensemble, a youth chorus and musicians from the original recording sessions (the first three shows in New York also featured Anthony Hegarty on backing vocals). In June , the UK tour ended with a performance at the Royal Albert Hall, coinciding with the cinema release of Schnabel’s concert film Berlin, documenting the first three shows in Brooklyn – a good time to investigate whether the dark album, originally conceived as “film for the ear”, could really be recreated on stage and screen.
While we are waiting for the man in the crowded auditorium of the grand RAH, Julian Schnabel himself jumps on stage to introduce the performance and kindly ask the audience, mainly consisting of middle- aged media-types, to turn off their mobile phones – a far cry from Reed’s wild days with the Velvet Underground and Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitables. Then the curtain opens, Reed appears and the show begins. A white-robed youth choir, bathed in floodlights, provides visual drama, especially as they open the night with the angelic chorus of ‘Sad Song’. Schnabel’s rather minimal set design, however, is a disappointment. His only contribution seems to be what looks like a large green canvas with abstract patterns which, despite taking up the entire back of the stage, turns into a murky blur when viewed from the auditorium. For those familiar with Schnabel’s work as a painter this probably won’t come as a surprise – considering his most recent exhibition of ethereal paintings, Schnabel is probably not the most obvious candidate for designing the set of a rock opera.
But then, this evening is about Lou Reed, who finally launches into the first song of the album, ‘Berlin’, a jolly account of Caroline and Jim’s happier days. He continues working his way through the entire set-list in chronological order. But as the songs get progressively darker, Reed seems to have an increasingly good time, prancing about on stage with fellow band mates Steve Hunter and Fernando Saunders and launching into self-indulgent guitar solos which turn ‘How Do You ink It Feels’ into a happy-clappy foot-stomping number – a strange antithesis to the dark content of the song. But the sheer force of Reed’s enthusiasm, not to mention his band’s, makes it impossible not to get drawn in. The concert concludes with the happiest version of ‘Sad Song’ that one will possibly ever hear. And, after the inevitable interminable standing ovations, the man returns and continues with the crowd-pleasing set-pieces ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and ‘Satellite of Love’, including a comic interlude with Saunders which adds to the overall impression that the infamously moody Lou Reed is having the time of his life.
Musically speaking, the evening is a huge success and even Reed’s alt- rock antics are easily forgiven, given the strength of his performance. Lola Schnabel’s films, however, which were supposed to recreate the scenarios described in Reed’s songs, sat awkwardly in this context. Often obscured by the background design onto which they were projected, they resembled slick Calvin Klein adverts rather than convincing depictions of Reed’s tragic heroes. Even worse, the translation of the songs into moving images were often painstakingly literal, which reaches a comic height during ‘Caroline Says II’, a song about Caroline’s emotional isolation. During the refrain “But she’s not afraid to die/ All her friends call her Alaska…It’s so cold in Alaska”, aerial views of snow-covered mountain-tops in Alaska are projected on stage – an embarassing visual pun which could only have been exceeded by, say, Reed putting on a pair of mittens to make a point. The films hardly ever manage to rise above the mediocre level of pointless visual backdrop. At their worst, they are annoying distractions from the performance on stage – a faux pas, which Julian Schnabel manages to avoid in his own visual take on Reed’s Berlin, instead letting the music speak for itself.
Julian Schnabel’s Berlin is a straightforward concert film, which focuses mainly on the onstage action and includes surprisingly few clips from Lola Schnabel’s films. While the film is certainly not one of Schnabel’s masterpieces and probably more of interest to Lou Reed fans, it still shows that music and simple storytelling are sometimes enough to evoke mental images and create atmosphere. During Reed’s ‘ The Kids’, one of the most moving songs from the album, Schnabel almost entirely omits Lola Schnabel’s short film in favour of close-ups of Reed’s charismatic face as he delivers one of the most emotional performances from the set. While a concert film can never truly capture the electrifying atmosphere of a live gig, in the case of Berlin the editing works to advantage, allowing Schnabel to bring out the dramatic content of the songs and creating an almost intimate atmosphere. In the end, even though live performance and concert film never quite manage to recreate the same mood that defines the album, they show that, despite the current trend for multimedia spectacle, less is sometimes more; and in this case, Reed’s stage presence, unique voice and storytelling are enough to create a musical “movie for the mind” – even if it is happier then expected.