Lou Reed's solo albums each have their proponents and opponents, with fans standing up for everything from the avant-noise experiment Metal Machine Music to the post-Springsteen mainstream-rock push Coney Island Baby. Reed's 1973 concept album Berlin is especially controversial among Reed-ophiles, both for its prog-rock pretensions—it's a song cycle about a drug-addicted German prostitute and her children, with contributing performances by the likes of Steve Winwood and Jack Bruce—and for its fashionable nihilism. Lester Bangs dubbed it "a gargantuan slab of maggoty rancor," and those who enjoyed the more pop-minded Transformer by and large failed to follow Reed on his journey into the colossally morose. Even Berlin's devotees have complained over the years about the record's relatively punchless sound.
If nothing else, Julian Schnabel's concert film Lou Reed's Berlin presents the album's 10 songs with a force they've rarely shown before. Filmed over five nights in New York, Lou Reed's Berlin shows Reed with a lively backup band—including horns, strings, a gospel choir, and Sharon Jones and Antony as background singers—performing Berlin from start to finish, then running through a short encore of "Candy Says," "Rock Minuet," and "Sweet Jane." Berlin's relatively hooky first half is rendered ferociously, with nearly every song ending in extended dual-guitar jams. Then the quieter, sadder second half takes on a mesmerizing spiritual quality, as all the musicians onstage support Reed's endearingly awkward descriptions of demimonde degradation.
Lou Reed's Berlin can't quite take its place in the pantheon of great concert films, because Schnabel's cameras rarely seem to be in a useful place, and his pointless lo-fi recreations of the album's story look cheap and intermittently pretentious. But for Reed fans—for rock fans—the movie is an essential document of a noteworthy event. Reed has always been an ideal case study for rock auteurists, because so much of what makes him great is bound up in his weird lyrics and lackadaisical vocals—both of which are particularly off-putting on Berlin. And yet those words and how Reed sings them make Berlin personal and idiosyncratic. The Reed of the 2000s still sounds at home mumbling about a girl whose friends all "call her Alaska," and describing how the decadent pleasures of one night lead to the desperate repercussions of the following morning.