In 1973, a year after Lou Reed reached the Top 20 with "Walk on the Wild Side" - an unlikely pop smash about transvestites, junkies and blowjobs - he followed up his biggest hit with the totally ambitious and kinda pretentious Berlin. The tough, harrowing song cycle about a drugged-out couple deteriorating in the German city barely cracked the Top 100. The fact that it all ends with a seven-minute bummer called "Sad Song" (and the protagonist's suicide) should give you a pretty good idea why nobody bought the album.
Thirty-three years later, Reed - who never played Berlin's songs live - performed the record in order and its entirety at a string of New York City gigs. Julian Schnabel, who directed 2007's terrific The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, shot the concerts and applies his painterly imagery to Lou Reed's Berlin, an absorbing document of those shows.
Backed by horn players, a small string section, a core rock band and a youth choir (as well as Dap queen Sharon Jones and Antony Hegarty, the angelic-voiced frontman of Antony and the Johnsons), Reed injects these little-known songs with subtler grace and less bombast than what's on the original record. Schnabel occasionally inserts film clips (directed by his daughter) to keep the story moving, but since they're mostly artsy, blurry shots of people doing artsy, blurry things, Reed's narrative-rich songs provide most of the details.
Schnabel shoots the concerts from various angles - sometimes filling the screen with every line of Reed's 64-year-old face, sometimes pulling back to reveal the entire stage. It makes for an artier and more engaging concert movie than we've seen in quite some time, even if the notoriously cranky Reed rarely cracks a smile. Most viewers probably never heard these songs (stick around for the end credits for an encore of "Sweet Jane"). This is Reed at his gloomiest and most downbeat; very few of the tunes actually rock. All these years later, Berlin remains a difficult work, but, thanks in part to this adoring movie, it's become one of Reed's most enduring albums.