I never liked U2. I never understood what it was that made them so eminent, that made the people venerate them like golden gods. I disliked the dogma that accompanied their every record and grew tired of seeing lead singer Bono sitting next to world leaders, peering out from behind tinted shades on the front page of every newspaper. If there was a choice to be made (and in the mind of the critic, there is always is), the Undertones were my favorite Irish band: those cheeky boys from the north who, despite the capital-T Troubles in their homeland, sang about summertime and girls, not politics. Like Noel Gallagher, I wanted to say to U2, “Play ‘One’, shut the fuck up about Africa.” In my mind U2 were activists, not a great rock band.
Activism and music however, have always been friends, and music is one of the greatest mediums by which to communicate radical ideas in sensible, danceable ways. Despite my misgivings about U2, I understood this. I understood what it was like to love a band so much that it changed my opinions about the world. I also knew what it was to be one in a crowd, swept up in the maelstrom, to jump up and down alongside strangers who had become comrades by the very nature of mutual devotion to the music. I had been at concerts where the only reasonable response to the inspirational rock ‘n’ roll symphonies blaring out of the speakers was to spontaneously weep with a mixture of joy and sadness. I knew all this and yet I didn’t like U2 and no Apple ads or radio airplay could ever alter my attitude.
Thus it is with a great serving of crow that I recommend highly U2 3D, a triumphant concert film that actually feels like a real concert rather than just a bunch of live songs strung together for the benefit of hardcore fans, or worse a slavishly adoring tribute flick in which all involved jerk each other off for being brilliant. Although walking into the IMAX theatre I didn’t like U2, an acquired taste regardless of all their accolades, walking out I was a believer. U2 3D is a remarkable achievement for the rock ‘n’ roll band at its center and for rock ‘n roll cinema in general.
Recorded over 9 concerts in Latin America and one in Australia, U2 3D is the first film to utilize IMAX,3-D, and multi-camera technology for a concert. While this use of new tools could have easily been badly bungled with cheesy bells and whistles, 3-D effect are used only to create and successfully sustain the cinematic illusion rather than dismiss the reality altogether. Credit must go to editor Oliver Wicki for a job remarkably well done, as the disparate performances are sewn together so masterfully that only Bono’s changing jackets reveal the seams.
The film opens with a breathless tour through the halls of the venue, as people begin pouring through the turnstiles and running to their seats. The band kicks off an hour and a half set with “Vertigo”, their 2004 hit from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. U2 then proceed to tear down the house with epic renditions of songs from their back catalogue, all of which are delivered with ecstatic zeal. The result is a thrilling hour and a half ride that literally fits the viewer with conceptual goggles and transports them to the center of a U2 concert circa 2006. Wisely forgoing the usual concert film rituals of backstage interviews and retrospectives, U2 3D keeps the focus where it belongs: on the music. The camera swoops and swirls around the band, sometimes giving us a bird’s eye view (or cheap seats view), other times taking the low angled view, letting us gaze up at the band as though we are standing at the foot of the stage. Never does the band speak to, or even look at, the film viewer, keeping the illusion complete: We are but one in a crowd. When the camera pans out over the massive crowd pogo-going in time to the beat, one truly understands what Led Zeppelin called “The Ocean”.
U2 themselves are exciting performers who command attention in non-confrontational ways. Although the venue they are playing is massive, the film seems intimate, affording the viewer incredible detail couched in an omniscient viewpoint. Co-director Catherine Owens, long time art director for the band’s live shows, truly understands the dynamics of a U2 concert and uses her experience to illuminate the universal appeal of the band. Owens and partner Mark Pellington portrays the band, maybe not as they are, but as their audience sees them. For a concert film, this is exactly the right approach. Their structure is so engrossing that at times during the film I kept tilting my head to see around the head in front of me, repeating in my head that hallowed rule of rock - get out of the front row, dude, you’re tall.
Even if you’re not a U2 fan, you’ll be surprised how many of the songs you recognize – they are like the Beach Boys in that way. Their sound is unique and they own it. The viewer cannot help but be swept up by the band’s high energy and the exhilarating response of the crowd they are playing for. It is clear that both groups are having a blast and the camaraderie infectious. However it wouldn’t have mattered how good the band’s performance was if the film itself was badly put together. Without the loving ministrations of Wicki, Owens, and Pellington, U2 3D may have simply been a failed experiment in concert films.
U2 3D is so replete with magical moments that it is truly difficult to choose which ones to describe. Guitarist the Edge silhouetted by fog, the beads of sweat on his forehead visible to us. Bono draping his arms around his band mates and kneeling before he crowd. The twinkling of a thousand lit cell phones illuminating the darkness. The clenched faces of rapturous Argentines singing alone to every English word. These are all iconic images, unique to the music world and too often rendered cliché. When Bono tells the fans of Buenos Aires that they, like the Irish, must move past the tragedies of their sad history to create a better world, the cheers of the crowd are deafening. The genius of U2 has always been taking culturally specific events and making something beautiful and universal out of them. Though sometimes preachy, their credos are backed with a genuine humanism that resonates on a global level. Of course, their music is occasionally still saccharine: I will always find "Beautiful Day" so earnest it gives me cavities, but the band’s sincerity cannot be questioned. By the end of U2 3D, I truly felt like I had attended a U2 concert, with added the privilege of having communed with the music in a way that an ordinary concertgoer never could. The true feat of these filmmakers is the way have used burgeoning technology to take reality and make it better, realer than real, which is what great films always do.
During “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, which possibly contains the greatest military inspired drumbeat since “White Rabbit”, Bono breaks the 4th wall. Thanks to the 3D, his hand reaches out towards the viewer, his head tipped sideways. “Wipe your tears,” he says. At that moment, sitting in the theater surrounded wholly by sound and picture, my eyes blurred, a sensation I attributed at first to the ill-fitting one-size-fits-all plastic 3D glasses distributed to audience members. I say at first because that is what I thought to be true until I felt the wetness on my cheeks and a salty tear dripped into the corner of my mouth.