Lou Reed’s Berlin a film by Julian Schnabel is a mesmerising, moody documentary of Reed’s 1973 album 'Berlin’ performed live at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn with support from the Sydney Festival. Kylie Boltin attended a London screening and Q & A of the doc with Reed in attendance. Here’s what transpired.
1 Dec 2008 - 2:22 PM  UPDATED 7 Nov 2012 - 1:33 AM

Lou Reed recorded the album Berlin in 1973.
It was a commercial failure. Over the next 33 years, he never performed the album live. For five nights in December 2006 at St. Ann\'s Warehouse Brooklyn, Lou Reed performed his masterwork about love\'s dark sisters: jealousy, rage and loss.
- Julian Schnabel (Director’s statement).

Lou Reed wrote and recorded his album Berlin before he had ever set foot in the divided city. At its inception the album was as controversial for its bleak depictions of relationships, family and drug abuse as it was for stepping away from the Glam rock persona Reed had developed post-Velvet Underground.

On Berlin’s original release, Rolling Stone magazine raved, 'It is not an overstatement to say that Berlin will be the \'Sgt. Pepper\' of the Seventies." But then the same magazine - among many others - attacked Reed for the work: 'There are certain records that are so patently offensive that one wishes to take some kind of physical vengeance on the artists that perpetrate them. Reed’s only excuse for this performance"¦can only be that this was his last shot at a once-promising career." (See http://www.loureed.com/new/news/articles/berlin.html).

It’s criticism that never bothered Reed who says, post-screening at London’s Mayfair Cinema, 'I always laugh about people who say it’s depressing. What’s the ending of Hamlet – what do you think? Everyone’s dead at the end of Hamlet! Othello and Desdemona – these are classic themes. I’d just done '[Walk on the] Wildside’, so I said, 'If you like Wildside I’ll show you the real one – they [the critics] didn’t like that."

Reed first asked Julian Schnabel (Basquiat - 1996, Before Night Falls – 2000, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – 2007) to do set design while the New York director and painter was in France shooting The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Schnabel agreed on the condition that he could also direct. The finished collaboration between the two artists is intimate, evocative and harrowing. Schnabel’s set design and direction combined with his daughter Lola’s washed out, tinted, overlapping footage of French actress Emmanuelle Seigner — as central character, Caroline — serves to focus additional attention on the underlying narrative of Berlin.

The montages achieved thorough this layering of the live music performance and film recalls the early Factory films made by Andy Warhol. When Reed hears my question about this, he qualifies but essentially agrees. 'It really reminded me"¦ Julian was doing what Julian did. When I went out there to see what he’d done I thought, 'Jesus Christ, look at this"¦ It’s VU (Velvet Underground) at the Dome. Except it’s in colour’." (The VU played at the Dome in 1966, as part of Andy Warhol\'s \"Exploding Plastic Inevitable\").

Returning to the material after so many years was an opportunity for Reed. 'Playing [Berlin] is pure pleasure – what it’s about has a lot to do with emotional components. As you should hope," he adds. 'I’m pretty straightforward and simple, there’s nothing about me that’s in any way complicated. I wanted to do something as good as In Dreams Begin Responsibilities [published in 1937 by American writer and former teacher of Reed’s, Delmore Schwartz] filtered through [William] Burroughs.

'The first idea was so simple I don’t even know if it qualifies as an idea – 13 or 14 songs. The characters appear in the first song. It’s very distracting when this happens: I thought, 'Why don’t these characters reappear and they could interact just like a book or a movie’. I’m always trying to cause an emotion. Jealousy is a universal theme. I don’t know anyone who has not been jealous. That’s what Berlin is about.

'Music makes things have more strength. That’s why they score movies. A three-minute song might do more than one-and-a-half hours in a movie. Music really intensifies experiences. 'Rock Minuet’ is really murderous dialogue. Did you listen to that? Straight out of Selby [Hubert Selby Jr, author of Last Exit to Brooklyn, Requiem for a Dream]."

Reed had always wanted to stage Berlin but says, 'the reception was so terrible, we just forgot about it. I wanted everything – the band, the strings, the horns, the choir" – the performance at St. Ann’s was the first time it was possible to have it performed the way it was originally conceived.

Reminiscences aside, this is a contemporary work and Reed loves it. 'I always work with people I admire. You know you’re not going to agree with everything they say. 'Some of the visual ideas are just fabulous. Julian hung a couch on the ceiling and put a white stripe on it. You’re working with someone who is really, really good and they’ll never betray you. Caroline could have been a hundred different people; Emmanuelle Seigner should have 'Trouble’ tattooed on her forehead, and that’s what Caroline is." Of fellow New York-based singer Antony [of Antony and the Johnsons’], who provides vocals along with Sharon Jones [most recently of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings] Reed says, 'being around Antony is thrilling for me. He’s so absurdly talented. I can listen to him all day."

Lou Reed’s Berlin, a film by Julian Schnabel is a documentary that every Reed fan will want to see. Distributed by Madman, it hits stores December 3.