WEDNESDAY, 11/13 and THURSDAY, 11/14 at the New Beverly Cinema
The New Beverly Cinema is hosting a tribute to the late Lou Reed (sob!) for two nights this week — and L.A. cinephiles and music lovers alike should give thanks that we live in a city with such thoughtful rep cinema programming.
The latter half of the double bill is Allan Arkush’s 1983 music-biz satire Get Crazy, which I’ll confess was unknown to me until now. And maybe not just me — a bit of online research indicates that the movie was dumped in a few theaters circa summer ’83 as some kind of tax write-off for its producers.
Lou Reed appears in it as a Dylan parody (!) named… Auden (real subtle there), and performs “Little Sister,” which might be reason enough to see it if you’re a Reed fan. Of course, the music industry is notoriously difficult to satirize, though perhaps the director of Rock n’ Roll High School was the right guy for the job. Get Crazy has never received any kind of home-video release — no VHS, no DVD, no stream — so don’t miss these two screenings if you’re at all curious.
The real attraction here is Berlin on the big screen: this is Julian Schnabel’s concert movie, drawn from the five nights in December 2006 when Lou Reed performed, for the first time, his infamous 1973 concept album Berlin in its entirety, at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse. For the occasion, Lou was joined onstage by no fewer than a couple dozen other musicians and singers, and it’s virtually an all-star lineup: the other guitarist was Steve Hunter, he of FM rock-radio immortality thanks to his playing on the live “Sweet Jane” (and its extended instrumental intro, which he wrote) from Reed’s 1974 Rock n’ Roll Animal LP. But Hunter also played on the original Berlin album; reunited with Reed after three decades, he hadn’t missed a step.
Handling additional guitar and stand-up bass were Fernando Saunders and Rob Wasserman, both vets of Reed’s live bands and some of his best albums in the past few decades; and providing luxury casting on backup vocals were Sharon Jones, minus the Dap-Kings, and Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons. (Lou Reed, Julian Schnabel, Sharon Jones and Antony — that’s an impressive round-up of NYC eminences right there.) Someone had the nutty but inspired idea of bringing in the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and there’s also a horn section, conducted by none other than Bob Ezrin, producer of the original Berlin album.
Ezrin turns up onstage in a white lab coat and dances and waves his arms around, looking like an ebullient mad scientist. Back in ’73, the then-24-year-old Ezrin dreamed of staging Berlin as a musical, a pipe dream that was shelved when the album — not surprisingly — proved to be anything but a crowd pleaser. Thirty-three years later, the live shows in Brooklyn must have been sweet vindication indeed: one of the pleasures here is seeing how even Reed’s stone face cracks into a smile as he and the other musicians play off each other and find — or reassert — the greatness in these songs.
In ’73, Reed was coming off his one Top 10 hit, “Walk on the Wild Side,” and the attendant smash album Transformer. Produced by David Bowie, Transformer sounds like a greatest hits collection in retrospect, what with a track listing that includes “Satellite of Love,” “Vicious,” “Perfect Day,” etc.
So expectations were high for Reed’s follow-up — which, with characteristic (unwitting?) perversity, he proceeded to sabotage. Berlin is a concept album about the tortured, tawdry love affair between an abusive American named Jim and a hedonistic single mother named Caroline, set in West Berlin, a place that Reed admitted he selected for metaphoric reasons; he hadn’t ever been there yet. The stuff of surefire Top 10 hits, obviously.
Heard today, it’s fascinating how Berlin is both a signature Reed work in its themes, yet anomalous in his oeuvre for the elaborate, theatrical cabaret-rock arrangements. It’s more a producer’s album than a singer’s; the delicate title ballad aside, on song after song Ezrin was apparently determined to max out the capabilities of 24-track recording.
Slick and lavish, the music is a long way from the spare, taut arrangements of the Velvet Underground, even if (as only became clear later on) a couple of the songs rework Velvets tunes that were still unreleased at the time. The sound often suggests a Hollywood take on Teutonic decadence, as if Ezrin or somebody was still under the spell of Bob Fosse’s Cabaret from a year earlier.
Berlin is beautiful at times, even with the bitter, acrid sentiments expressed in Reed’s lyrics, and even if the overblown production teeters on the brink of self indulgence. (The original LP was also overburdened with a lavish photo-booklet accompanying the lyrics, full of fussy, tinted images illustrating Jim and Caroline’s doomed affair; record companies had a lot of money to blow in the ’70s.)
The first side of the original vinyl has the better-known, relatively more listener-friendly tunes (“Caroline Says I,” “How Do You Think It Feels”), while the downward-spiral second side is a downer in a way that few albums can equal, describing how self-destructive Caroline loses her children to social services (“The Kids,” the crying kids on which makes you wonder how anyone ever thought this album could be a hit), her subsequent suicide (“The Bed”), and Jim’s affectless response (“Sad Song” — aptly titled).
It’s an album meant to be played late at night — not that many people in 1973, with the possible exception of a few self-pitying drag queens, were prepared to give it a fair hearing. Everyone wanted Transformer II. For a sample of the critical response, here’s the complete Rolling Stone review from 1973, penned by Stephen Davis:
“Lou Reed’s Berlin is a disaster, taking the listener into a distorted and degenerate demimonde of paranoia, schizophrenia, degradation, pill-induced violence and suicide. 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 kind of performance (which isn’t really performed as much as spoken and shouted over Bob Ezrin’s limp production) can only be that this was his last shot at a once-promising career. Goodbye, Lou.”
Goodbye, Stephen Davis. (To be fair, he went on to write the Led Zep bio Hammer of the Gods, an entertaining trashy read, so he was good for something.)
The surprise of Schnabel’s Berlin concert movie is how the 2006 live versions trump the album, in almost every case. The music, produced by Ezrin and Hal Willner, evokes the original arrangements, but the live versions strip off the layers of studio lacquer. They’re less mannered, more dynamic, expressive, groovier. The interplay between Reed and the core band makes it clear that everyone involved is having a great time — and in song after song, Reed’s inimitable guitar buzzes its way to the forefront of the sound. Listen to him here and you’ll be struck anew by how he played guitar like a writer of muscular prose, i.e., with a rigorous avoidance of cliches and not a note wasted.
Another grace note is the contribution of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, on “Caroline Says I” in particular: the kids (some of whom look all of 13) adding an oddly innocent, even sweet counterpoint to the abject, sado-maso vibe of the lyrics. The music rises to an unlikely moment of elation here.
Schnabel films the show intelligently: Ellen Kuras’ camera glides along the stage to capture the interaction between the band, and the editing doesn’t suffer from the maddening ADD of an episode of MTV Unplugged. Schnabel also designed the set, a subtle evocation of the old West Berlin’s faded grandeur.
More dubious are the projections and cutaways to footage of “Caroline,” as performed by French actress Emmanuelle Seigner with her hair dyed platinum blonde. Seigner certainly looks the part of the ill-fated beauty here, but the footage directed by Schnabel’s daughter Lola is too often embarrassingly literal, like a music video from 1983: Reed’s lyric mentions pale hotel walls, and there’s Caroline stumbling down a yellow hotel corridor with her latest boy-toy lover. The imagery also tries to evoke a hazy, gritty Super 8–style “1970s” in a way that might not have seemed so obvious in 2006, but which in the last few years has become ubiquitous via Instagram and who knows how many apps and filters.
I can take or leave that footage; it hardly detracts from how enjoyable the concert is — and will be, as heard on the New Beverly’s sound system. The concert ends with the considerable bonus of a well-chosen three-song encore: first up is the Velvets’ “Candy Says,” in which cherubic, hermaphroditic Antony makes clear he was born to sing the opening lines, a fact not lost on everyone else on stage. Then there’s Reed’s “Rock Minuet,” from 2000’s Ecstasy album, a distillation of his literary gifts that deserves to be better known. It captures an unsparingly seedy, darkly funny life story in the space of a song. (I sure hope somebody escorted the kids from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus out of the building before a single line of the lyrics could singe their ears.)
Last up is “Sweet Jane,” and I’ll leave it to you to discover how good that sounds here. This is a great way to remember Lou Reed. Complete info on the New Beverly Cinema site.
Click here to read Antony’s tribute to Lou Reed (highly recommended).