Lou Reed's Berlin



South by Southwest

AUSTIN -- A basically straight concert film offering an exceptionally strong performance and just enough formal adornment to hold a movie audience's attention, "Lou Reed's Berlin" is satisfying for devoted fans and might even win a convert or two. Commercial prospects are strongest on the small screen, but a round on the specialty theatrical circuit should draw modest crowds.

What seems at first like a liability -- the former Velvet Underground leader won't be doing "I'm Waiting for the Man" or "Walk on the Wild Side" and is instead presenting a start-to-finish reading of his 1973 flop "Berlin" -- proves to be a strength: Rather than see him trot out hits (Reed does offer a fine take on "Sweet Jane" over the closing credits), we watch as he performs music he never got a chance to share with a crowd. The singer's assured, emotionally steady delivery sounds like that of a man who has had three decades to sing these songs to himself, assuring himself of their worth even as music lovers took years to warm up to them.

Reed could hardly wish for a better band to put this song cycle across. The ensemble adds a punchy horn section, some strings and even a robed choir to the usual rock instrumentation, and the pieces click perfectly -- even when that choir has to segue from intelligible lyrics into sliding tones that resemble whales' songs.

Director Julian Schnabel adorns the live staging with music-video-like film clips projected behind the band and sometimes cross-faded into the film itself. The material ranges from the literal (the album's character Caroline is embodied by Emmanuelle Seigner, from Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly") to the abstract, with the latter (like a haunting episode in which dollhouse furniture tumbles around underwater) being the most effective.

Art-film elements aside, the performance is straightforward, with no banter or hoopla but consistently engaging cinematography by Ellen Kuras. After devoting just more than an hour to the album, Reed's encore features one spot-on guest appearance: Antony, of Antony and the Johnsons, contributes a crystal vocal to "Candy Says," reminding us how far Reed's influence stretches into today's music world.

A Waterboy and Jon Kilik presentation of a Grandview Pictures/LM Media GMbH production
Director: Julian Schnabel
Producers: Jon Kilik, Tom Sarig
Executive producers: Stanley F. Buchthal, Maya Hoffman
Director of photography: Ellen Kuras
Music: Lou Reed
Co-producer: Ann Ruark
Editor: Benjamin Flaherty
Running time -- 81 minutes
No MPAA rating