Lou Reed's Berlin Review

Being much more familiar with the music of Lou Reed than myself, Gary Couzens has kindly allowed me to use his review of the standard DVD edition of Berlin for the film part of this BD review while I’ve covered the technical sections.

Lou Reed's place in the firmament would be assured if he had made no other records than the four (not counting live albums and retrospectives) he did with the Velvet Underground. Their influence far outweighed their minimal to nonexistent commercial success. The combination of Reed's three-chord rock, the unblinking street reportage of his songs, and – in the first two albums – the avant-garde influences, such as drones and discords, of the classically-trained John Cale, casts a long shadow to this day.

However, by 1971 Reed was a solo artist, and his second album Transformer (produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson) was the biggest hit of his career to date. It even spawned an unlikely UK Top Ten single with “Walk on the Wild Side”, its lyrics a portrait of five of Andy Warhol's “Superstars”, set to Herbie Flowers's bass riff. Somehow it was played on BBC Radio: presumably someone there didn't know what “giving head” meant. Reed's solo career has been wayward ever since, alternating between outright provocation (dyeing his hair blonde and cutting a swastika in it, in a form of aggressive camp; releasing four discs worth of electronic noise in the notorious Metal Machine Music) with return-to-roots albums such as Street Hassle. In later years, often collaborating with his longtime partner (now wife) Laurie Anderson, he has taken on an elder-statesman artist persona, as a writer and poet as much as a musician.

Some of all of this appears in Berlin, his 1973 follow-up to Transformer. A song cycle about a couple in the city of the same name, its subject matter is dark indeed: domestic violence, drugs, prostitution, suicide. Yet musically it has a melancholy beauty of its own, as Reed incorporates strings and horns into the basic guitar/bass/drums setup. One track, “The Kids”, which describes how the central character, Caroline, has her children taken away from her, has a section where the sounds of children crying can be heard. Even if you doubt the story about how these screams and cries were produced, this is still one of the most harrowing album tracks in my entire collection. (It would be interesting to compare Berlin with Pink Floyd's The Wall, as both have the same producer, Bob Ezrin.)

Needless to say Berlin was not what people wanted after Transformer. It was a commercial failure, and a critical one too, with reviews calling it “the most depressing album ever made”. However, it has maintained a steady core of support ever since, and as the decades have passed has come to be reassessed as one of Reed's best. He never played it live until 2006, when he performed it over five nights at St Ann's Warehouse, Brooklyn. Artist and film director Julian Schnabel was on hand to introduce the event and film the proceedings, and Berlin is the result. Of the album's original personnel, only lead guitarist Steve Hunter remains, along with string and horn sections and a choir. Among the backing vocalists is Antony Hegarty (Antony and the Johnsons), who duets with Reed on an encore of “Candy Says”.
Berlin, shot by Ellen Kuras on HD, is for the most part a straightforward record of the concert. Schnabel's major flourish is to include from time to time short illustrative film clips directed by his daughter Lola, featuring Emmanuelle Seigner as Caroline. The Berlin songs last just over an hour, with encores of the aforementioned “Candy Says”, “Rock Minuet”, and the Velvets' classic “Sweet Jane”, which plays under the film's closing credits.

There's no doubting the musicianship of those on stage, nor the cinematic ability of Schnabel in preserving it. For Reed fans especially, for those who were there as much as those who were not, this DVD will be essential. But somehow Berlin lacks the fire of the best rock concert films. It's not as if we can't get up and dance - Berlin was never that kind of record – but there seems to be an inhibiting pall over the event, as if we are to be overly respectful by being in the presence of Serious Art. Maybe you had to be there, and I wasn't.


Lou Reed’s Berlin is released on Blu-ray in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on BD25 disc with a 1080p encode. The extra features are in Standard Definition PAL.

Although filmed on HD (with 16mm inserts), it would seem however that Berlin doesn’t really benefit from presentation on Blu-ray. This is perhaps due to the manner in which Schnabel has manipulated and degraded the image, which is never particularly clear or sharp, or it may simply be a matter of the limitations of shooting in a low-lit location. The image consequently looks rather gritty and grainy - although the grain is fine and handled very well - and there’s a washed-out quality to the colours, which are of course subject to washes of coloured stage lights and white spotlights. Blacks are not strong, the backgrounds behind the performers looking a murky reddish-brown evidently through underexposure. Considering light levels and the film stock used, this is not unexpected. This is undoubtedly how you would expect the film to look and it suits the live concert footage, but I’m just not sure that it is in any way enhanced by HD presentation.

Likewise the Lossless DTS Master Audio 5.1 mix doesn’t reveal any finer definition or greater dynamic to the sound mix than is available on the regular Dolby Digital 5.1 alternative. Vocals are relatively strong when there is a sparser instrumentation, but lyrics tend to become difficult to distinguish when there is a fuller band sound. Even there, there is no great definition or separation on the instruments and it does come across as rather muddy, the drums not having a powerful enough kick and the bass sounding rather weak, as the guitars dominate the mix. Audience noise, restricted to clapping between songs, is restricted to the rear speakers. Again, this is what you would expect from an authentic live sound mix, and it’s fine for that, but just doesn’t expect the lossless track to bring any finer qualities to the sound.

There are no subtitles provided.

The extra features on the BD release are the same as those on the Standard Definition DVD, consisting of a Trailer (1:13) and Biographies of Lou Reed and Julian Schnabel.

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Last updated: 18/04/2018 21:21:25

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