U2 is just one of those bands you can never quite get sick of. Even if they are not currently on tour supporting their latest album, they are still out there somewhere. If they aren’t, then at least Bono is out there doing his endless humanitarian work which usually threatens to overshadow everything else the band does. I didn’t realize what a big fan I was of U2 until my brother moved out of the house. He was always listening to U2, and usually it was “The Joshua Tree” playing from his equally powerful stereo system (as in equally powerful to mine).
Today, we are now celebrating the 20 year anniversary of the release of U2’s most famous album, “The Joshua Tree.” It seems almost surreal that so much time has passed, and the songs on it still feel timeless. U2 itself remains one of the biggest bands and touring acts in the world today. They seem incapable of making a half-assed album, and they play with as much passion as they did when they first started. These four guys from Ireland play their hearts out in front of thousands of fans at a single concert. This is made clear in the new concert film, “U23D,” which takes the concert movie to a new technological level it has not previously been at before.
This particular film came about because both the band and their manager (Paul McGinnis) wanted to bring the audience more into the concert experience. Watching a concert in TV is a frustratingly passive experience most of the time. You can never get into the concerts to the same degree that the audience does, which makes you regret never having gone to a concert in the first place. The first concert I ever went to was with Aerosmith at the Shoreline Amphitheater in the Bay Area. I went with my brother and his then girlfriend, and we ended up sitting in the lawn section at the far back. The best view we had of the band was from the big video screen above the stage, and seeing them up there took away from the experience that I was deprived of for a good portion of my life. It was kind of like watching it on TV, so I can see what Paul McGinnis was saying.
In “U23D,” you are not just a passive viewer watching another concert film. You are right up front with the band to where you feel like you can touch them, you feel like you are in the crowd cheering them on, and you feel like you are floating above everything as the camera moves along the jam-packed stadium filled with screaming fans. The movie was filmed during the band’s Vertigo tour, and this is made clear immediately as they launch into that very song. The film features a number of songs from their then current album, “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb,” as well as a number of other classic hits that they are best known for.
After having seen “Beowulf” and “The Polar Express,” I already know just how far the phenomenon of 3D has come. But the interesting thing here is that the band and the filmmakers (Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington) are not trying to wow us with effects as much as those films did. There are no showy moments where any of the band members are trying to play to the camera too much. I was expecting that from Bono more than anyone else, as he has a tendency to that in the majority of concerts to the point where he is practically wrestling the camera from its controller. But it becomes clear that what the filmmakers are trying to do is bring you into the concert experience with a view so close that you feel like you can touch the band members and smell the sweat that keeps pouring off of their skin.
There was a moment where it looks like hands in the small audience were going up, and I wanted to tell them to put them down so I could watch the movie in peace. Problem was, it wasn’t the audience I was sitting with, it was the audience who were being filmed during the concert. That almost made me laugh. The effect here of sucking you right into the concert is so subtle that you almost don’t notice it.
The concert where this movie was filmed was when they were playing in Buenos Aires, and the band plays to the crowd with such passion that makes you admire U2 even more. After so many years have passed since their very first album, they still play their hearts out, and it is more than clear that they are NOT sleeping their way through this set. A lot of their songs, especially the ones from “The Joshua Tree,” were written for the specific time that they were released in. However, these songs have become timeless and could easily apply to the present day world we are struggling to survive in. That makes it clear why U2 is just as relevant today as they were when they first performed. Even with “Bullet The Blue Sky” they try to make it as relevant today as it was when it was first released. It’s easy to see this with the Iraq war being as unpopular as it is, and with our eager desire to see our troops come sooner than later.
Among my favorite moments in the film are when they perform “Love And Peace Or Else,” and it features drummer Larry Mullen Jr. pounding on a single drum on one part of the stage that extends out into the audience. At the last half of the song, Bono is pounding hard on the drum in a way that shows just how serious he is of having love and peace or else. He keeps pounding long after the song is over which is an exhilarating to witness because you are along with him exalting in the power that he appears to have over the audience.
That’s the other thing I loved watching in not just this film, but in all the other concert films that U2 has done; they love sucking the audience into their wake. All the audiences they sing to know the words of their songs by heart, so to hear them sing with the band must be an incredible feeling for Bono, The Edge, Adam, and Larry. You have to wonder if there is any other feeling you can have that can even compare to something like that. You do not even need to have this film to be shot in digital to see that, although it certainly does add to that feeling here.
The other major advantage you can have in seeing this movie, other than seeing it in 3D, is to see it in IMAX. On top of seeing this concert film on a HUGE screen, you also get to hear it on a more incredible than usual sound system that adds to the concert-like experience of this film. For those of you not comfortable with loud sounds, then it may be advisable for you to bring along some ear protection. This is always a good idea when you go to just about any concert, except of course if it’s for someone like Sarah McLachlan where it is not entirely necessary yet every bit as good.
“U23D” also does a great thing in giving each band member their due. Some bands threaten to be overwhelmed or known for only one personality. When I told one of the people at my day job that I was planning to see this movie, they asked me,
“Can you handle Bono’s ego in 3D?”
But here, each band member gets a good solo moment that shows how big a part they play in the band’s success. No one person makes a band, and this is especially true in the case of U2. As great a singer as Bono is, and as brilliant a guitarist as The Edge is, they would very much be lost without Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton who each bring their own brilliant skills to this band. I was especially pleased to see Adam Clayton get a special mention from Bono during the concert. Bass players are not as respected as the lead guitar players, as if their job seems so simple. Check out the bass on songs like “With Or Without You,” and then I dare you to tell me that he is an unnecessary part of this band.
The movie also has a beautiful look to it as it gives you such vivid reds and blues. Watching this makes you feel like you are really at the concert as opposed to just watching it passively. Watching it in some ways is intoxicating, just like a real concert can be. For the most part, the band and the filmmakers have succeeded in making this particular concert movie more than just a passive movie going experience. They mean to break the fourth wall between the band and the moviegoer, and for the most part they succeed.
This is not necessarily the best concert movie I have ever seen (“Stop Making Sense” with the Talking Heads still takes the cake), but it is certainly the most vivid. Unlike a lot of other bands, U2 is more than willing to embrace the advances of technology than others would appear to be. Here, they use the technology to their advantage and create a concert film like no other.
After 20 years, I find it really really hard to get sick of U2.
***1/2 out of ****