Monday, February 11, 2008

Swinging to the Music

A review of U23D
directed by Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington

Concert films are almost always boring. No matter how much one may love the band or the artist, anyone who has been to a rock concert knows that viewing a film of a group performing live is nowhere near the experience of being there in person. After the first few numbers, it amounts to listening to the same songs you’ve heard over and over in a slightly different format and tempo. What you don’t get is all of the sights and smells, the pulse of the music in your bones, the strange but pleasing communion you experience with a large gathering of like-minded people for a temporary period of time that is somehow all the more transporting for that.

The challenges to producing a successful concert film would seem all the more formidable for a group as huge in every way possible (except perhaps the physical stature of the members) as U2, the Irish megaband that has been an international phenomenon for decades now. One of the reasons their popularity has become so pervasive across the globe is that their concerts are more than just a live performance. A U2 concert is an event, a spectacle in almost every sense, anchored firmly by the members’ unique talents to entertain with passion and vigor. These men are gifted artists all, blessed with the good fortune to have discovered not so much fame and wealth, but a clear vocation. U2 knows why they’re here. They are doing what they were born to do, and if you’ve seen their shows you know this is true.

The challenge for filmmakers Catherine Owens, a designer of U2’s stage presentations, and Mark Pellington, a film and television director (The Mothman Prophecies, “Cold Case”), was to provide an experience that, while necessarily falling just short of “you are there” verisimilitude, is nonetheless as grandiose and thrilling as this truly great band’s audience expects. In U23D, with the help of recent (and quite remarkable) film technology, they unquestionably succeed. The first concert film ever to be shot entirely by digital, three-dimensional cameras, U23D can rightfully be considered a landmark motion picture, and also one of the most satisfying marriages of form and subject to be seen on the big, big screen in many years.

The three-dimensional aspect of the film is a gimmick. Some may find it over the top at best, and off-putting or even irritating at worst. Entering the theater, the viewer is handed 3-D glasses, and for the first several minutes of the show I found it slightly difficult to get used to the sometimes-blurred or replicated images on the screen. I found, however, that the eyes adjust to it, and to me the handful of moments in the film when the 3-D imagery really works best are worth the temporary disorientation. Besides, it’s a fun gimmick; when was the last time you saw a 3-D movie? (I realized I hadn’t seen one at all.) At one particular moment in the film, the neck of Adam Clayton’s bass appears to be reaching out over one of your shoulders; in another fascinating touch, during the band’s classic anti-violence anthem “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, all of the crowd noise is consigned to the background, and while Bono sings the line, ‘Wipe your tears away’ directly into the camera, he reaches out and seems to actually wipe your own cheeks.

By deploying a dizzying array of camera angles, close-ups, and breathtaking wide-scale shots that fully encapsulate the sheer magnitude of the frenzied South-Central American crowds (the film was shot in Mexico and Argentina primarily) and the astounding stage and lighting designs, the filmmakers have done an extraordinary job of approximating to the fullest extent possible the sensual and visual barrage of a U2 concert. They deserve credit for their expansive vision and execution of this hugely entertaining film, which is best experienced on the IMAX screens it opened on initially.

Still, the ultimate credit goes to the band itself, who have turned themselves into worldwide icons by force of their own extraordinary talent and creative bravado. Some people seem put-upon by U2’s tremendous popularity and seemingly infinite success. For others, this is made even worse by their relatively clean reputation and by Bono’s global stature as an activist against hunger and poverty who seems at times to have more gravitas than presidents and heads of state. But the essential fact remains that for U2 to be as massively popular as they are, and for their shows to deliver the huge payoff one comes to expect, the songs themselves have to be great. It may be stating the obvious that a song like “Oops, I Did It Again” performed in the same venue with the same stage and lighting would not come off nearly the same way, but sometimes it’s easy to take fine songwriting for granted. The music viewers will see and feel in this concert film consists of some of the most spirited, unique and satisfying songs in rock music history – “Where The Streets Have No Name”, “New Year's Day”, “Bullet the Blue Sky”, “With Or Without You”, and so forth. There’s a good reason classics are classics; they’re built to last.

Lest anyone still believes that U2’s best work is behind them, however, nowhere is the aforementioned greatness so evident as in the performance of “Vertigo” from the band’s last album, which provides U23D’s most electrifying moment. The opening salvo of the film, this bombastic rock gem explodes every asset of U2 as a live act in one spectacular burst.

As an entertainer and vocalist, Bono is a force of nature, defying his age and whatever shelf-life a set human of vocal chords might have. He almost literally leaps off the screen. The Edge, U2’s extraordinary guitarist, is a technical genius, and performs with such cool professionalism and ease that one wonders if he is programmed. And the rhythm section of the band, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. on drums, play so well together after 30 years that you expect their flawless execution as a matter of course. I can’t think of a better compliment to pay to these fine musicians.

By the time you reach the first chorus of “Vertigo” and hear Edge’s call to the Spanish-speaking audience of ¿Donde esta? you’re ready with your answer: Right here, in the beauty of the moment, along with everyone else, no matter where in this world we’re from. And for at least 80 minutes out of your busy life, there’s no place you’d rather be.

1 comment:

Cathy said...

I could argue that if U23D makes you feel at times like you're at a concert, your blog does as good a job of making you feel like you are at the theater! Thanks! Only problem is that you got "Oops I did it again" in my head briefly :) Thanks! I'm very much looking forward to my official introduction to U2 music by Kelly!