Directed by Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington. Starring Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen, Jr.
Is U2:3D a triumph of aesthetics or merely technology? Either way, it’s a load of fun. As my friend Herman said after the movie, “sometimes, you actually can be too close to the band.” That level of immersion—mike stands veering into your face, Larry Mullen’s drumsticks surging up from the crashing cymbals into your direct line of sight—meshes well with the crisp and clean digital photography. The staging and lighting scheme is simple but surprisingly fluid—a tall gridlike backdrop of lights that looms over the band, sometimes flooding band and audience alike with solid patterns and timed, multicolored flashes, while at other times broadcasting animation, words, and unobtrusive graphics. When the stage’s floodlights are dimmed or turned off, but the backdrop stays lit, the compositions of silhouette bandmembers are arresting. There’s a minimum use of the smoke machine, so the staging gets points for sidestepping cliché. The mix of patterned-light backdrop and silhouettes owes a lot to Mark Romanek’s music videos—see Coldplay’s “Speed of Sound,” Linkin Park’s “Faint” and Audioslave’s “Cochise”—but the visual rhythms aren’t quite as playful and occasionally jarring as Romanek’s best work. (The editing does deserve special mention in one respect: continuity. Despite being stitched together from shows in Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and São Paolo on the 2006 Vertigo tour, the bandmates wear the same clothes throughout and their haircuts remain the same, and U2 3D looks and feels like a single, seamless show. I didn’t notice the cutting-and-pasting until reading the credits.) The photography keeps it straightforward, too—lots of crowd shots, extreme closeups of Bono, clapping and raised hands flooded by overhead lights, and the use of crane shots to get over the heads of everyone—so there are few surprises. That goes for the songs as well. I recognized every song but, then, that’s one hell of an achievement. Over nearly three decades, U2 has amassed enough instantly recognizable songs to fill a 90-minute show, and to have every one of those songs be known—by the end of the first chord progression—by 80,000 raucous fans. (The Rolling Stones can do that in Scotland, sure, but probably not Poland. Or Brazil. Or Argentina. Or South Africa.) I’m writing this, by the way, as a person who doesn’t own nor has ever owned a U2 album, or ever been more than a casual fan, or even been a regular pop radio listener since 1995. Yet I grinned like a maniac with the start of each new song. The foursome has tapped into something universal about pop. A cynic would claim that it’s the banal, purposefully vague lyrics—really, is “Pride” actually about anything other than Bono’s ability to recite the date of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination? Is the song saying anything profound?—but there’s no denying the distinctive sound. Watching the Edge negotiate keyboards and distortion pedals in closeup, his choppy, shimmering guitar sound becomes impossible to disrespect. With Adam Clayton on bass and Larry Mullen Jr. on drums, U2 builds musical structures that swirl gently around a center but which remain rock-solid rhythmically. Bono can’t reach the high ending notes of “One” anymore but even that becomes a sort of plus onstage. His voice growls and purrs wonderfully but, without the toe-curling histrionics of his youth, Bono’s more a part of the mix in U2:3D—an element of the sound rather than its defining point. Not that he doesn’t try for the latter. He wears a blindfold with the classically trite “Co-exist” image (made up of symbols from the world’s major religions, don’t you know) on it. U2’s earnestness gets the better of it during “Miss Sarajevo,” which ends in silence while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights scrolls across the backdrop and a background voice recites it—my bet is that’s Bono’s idea through and through. Still, the band’s trying for unity and something greater than getting laid and another paycheck, which is more than you can say about the Rolling Stones after its first three decades. Speaking of which, U2:3D, for all its pomp and self-importance, definitively proves that the band remains relevant. “Vertigo” is a dream concert-opener, with the audience screaming out “Hello! Hello!” along with Bono (the word’s blaring in red on the backdrop, too), and that’s from their 2004 album. The second song, “Beautiful Day,” comes from 2000’s All that You Can’t Leave Behind, and it roused the crowd as much as golden-oldie “Where the Streets Have No Name.” I missed favorite hits—there’s no “Mysterious Ways,” “Zoo Station,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “Even Better than the Real Thing,” or “In God’s Country”—but I got my money’s worth, song-wise. (“The Fly” was the encore opener, and the one terrific surprise in the setlist.) Again, the Stones might be nearly as big but the songs that carry their concerts were mostly written 40 years ago. Say what you will about U2 but it’s still producing relevant new hits. To clarify my opening question, though, does the 3-D photography add enough to justify this extravaganza as art? Honestly, the experience only holds up because U2:3D is an effectively shot concert. After twenty minutes of eye-popping closeness to the participants, the novelty wears thin. Because we weave in and out of the audience and onto the stage, a visual focal point is somewhat lacking. This doesn’t mean that I wanted a stationary camera throughout the movie but rather that the filmmakers haven’t decided on a perspective or a definite lens through which the viewer enters the movie. Compare U2:3D to the Beastie Boys’ Awesome! I Fucking Shot That!, in which we so clearly identify with the audience’s vantage point that the audience effectively shot the movie; or with Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, in which the band members are photographed as art objects, like a gallery installation, and the audience is decidedly incidental. These two movies aren’t just recording concerts but also giving us a point-of-view, a sense of the filmmaker behind the camera and the listener seeing the show. U2:3D feels impersonal in comparison, and the 3-D meant—for me, anyway—that I was constantly aware of it as a gimmick. I kept flitting my 3-D glasses on and off, to note the onscreen difference in visuals. Because of this, I was never completely immersed in the movie, even though the songs grabbed my heart. Without resorting to 3-D, the fabulous live video of “City of Blinding Lights”—another great song missing from the set—is tonally rich, cinematically graceful, and genuinely moving. When Bono sings “Oh, you look so beautiful” to the crowd, we believe he means it, and that it’s possible to believe that about ourselves, too. While U2:3D dazzles us with technique, the 4-minute “City of Blinding Lights” makes me want to enter the screen. There’s a difference.