For those of you who have never had the pleasure of being right up close at a U2 concert, let me divulge with a spoiler: Bono — a.k.a. Paul Hewson, a.k.a. The Fly, a.k.a Mr. MacPhisto; champion of Africa and two-time Nobel Prize nominee; debt-relief crusader and F-bomb-dropping bane of the Federal Communications Commission; the big-brained, big-hearted, big-mouthed and wholly unembarrassable frontman for The (all together now) World’s Biggest Band — is a wee, short little dude. Five-seven, five-eight, tops. When he performs — and truly, no rock and roll frontman has ever looked more at ease serenading a stadium-load of air guitarists than this guy — he wears thick-soled boots that give him an extra inch-and-a-half on the vertical plane. Every little bit helps, right?
But to paraphrase Al Capone, you can get further with a pair of platform shoes and a 3-D IMAX film that captures your every messianic gesture in close-up — and then projects your mug with frightening, acne-scarred digital clarity on a screen six stories high — than you can with platform shoes alone.
Thus arrives U23D, the most unambiguously-titled movie since, um, Aliens vs. Predator. It’s an 85-minute concert film compiled from a half-dozen early 2006 stadium gigs from U2’s Vertigo Tour. (Two other concert DVDs from the Vertigo Tour have already come out, making it perhaps the most exhaustively–documented rock roadshow since Bono created the world in seven days. Oh, relax, would you? I’m kidding now.) Released through National Geographic (!) exclusively in IMAX theatres, it’s the first live-action film to be completely shot and edited using a digital 3D process that James Cameron helped to develop and is using to shoot Avatar, his post-Titanic return to features. The results are, from a purely technical perspective, extraordinary.
The images have a convincing illusion of depth, and the film’s sound design contributes to the immersive feel of the thing by discretely separating different vocal and instrumental sounds. On “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” for example, your hear Bono’s lead vocal in front of you and the Edge’s backing part somwhere behind your head.
While this captures the feeling of being there more convincingly than traditional concert movies, it’s still a wholly unique experience, equally removed from a gig or a film. For one thing, you can both see and hear better than you would from even the best seat in the house at an actual concert, with the cameras giving us a variety of perspectives that would be impossible to achieve in a live situation. Of course, many concert films do this much, but at the cost of immediacy. Not so here: You feel the crowd (or, in some thrilling band POV shots, your fellow performers) around you at every moment.
The sound design, too, emphasizes the rumble-in-the-gut feel of a concert over a pristine presentation of the music, allowing crowd noise to remain a constant presence in the mix. No overdubs were added after the shoots. Bono’s once-mighty vox, an uncertain quantity in recent years, gets a little help, with the film’s audio selectively mixed to hide its limitations. (The culprits seem to be poor vocal technique and smoking rather than age — though it seems impossible given all he’s achieved, Bono is only 47 in Earth-years.)
With their two world tours of the 1990s, Zoo TV and PopMart, U2 did more than any band ever had, practically or artistically, to compress the space of a football stadium into a place where something like intimacy was possible. So it makes sense that they’d want to try to advance the medium of the concert film in the same way. As co-directred by Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington, both longtime associates of the band, U23D errs on the side of taste, preferring long takes to the hyperactive jump cuts of many concert films and avoiding the eye-poking novelty of the other 3D movies you’ve seen. There’s little sense of Bonozilla terrrizing Tokyo (or indeed Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Santiago, or Buenos Aires, the cities where the movie was shot). The “wipe your tears away” passage of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is the only point I can recall at which he directly reaches out to “touch” the viewer.
The 3-D effect is most striking in the crowd shots, wherein the sea of heads and arms seems to extend outward from the screen even as they vanish into a horizon of camera flashes and illuminated cel phones. Bono’s hand gestures get some John Madden-eqsue etch-a-sketch accompaniment during “Love and Peace or Else.” In most concert videos, this sort of embrodiery is always a mistake, but the way the digital “chalk lines” seems to hover in midair actually makes you wish U23D indulged in a bit more of this sort of gimmickry.
Dramatic low angles and backlighting only make The Edge want to rock harder. Photo courtesy @U2.
At 14 songs and 85 minutes, U23D is only about two-thirds as long as a typical Vertigo Tour concert, which will be enough for all but the diehards. Things begin rather clunkily with the ubiquitous iPod jingle “Vertigo,” a fun rocker but not a show-starter. U2 know how to make an entrance like few other bands, but that’s one aspect of a U2 show that Owens and Pellington have missed entirely, instead giving us some dull slo-mo footage of fans running into the venue.
Predictably, the songs included are mostly U2’s Greatest Hits — “Beautiful Day,” “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “One” — but a few worthy album tracks make the cut. Most notable is “Miss Sarajevo, the band’s 1995 elegy for that war-torn city. When Bono sings the Italian verse that Luciano Pavarotti performed on the recorded version, it’s one of the highlights in terms of sheer performance. Meanwhile, the unholy sonic mess that is the botched start of “The Fly” is one of the carefully-chosen moments of imperfection left in, like Adam Clayton’s bungled bass solo on “Gloria” from the Under a Blood Red Sky live EP a hundred years ago. (Okay, it was 1983, but you know.)
Of course, we’ve never needed U2 to point out their own shortcomings. Witness the wonky close of “With or Without You,” a tune U2 have played at every full-length concert they’ve given since 1987, and still they bungle it as often as they don’t. (For a more assured version, see Rattle and Hum, U2’s prior theatrically-released concert film, from 1988.) But it doesn’t really matter — hearing 70,000 voices wail the song’s bridge is so hair-raising that the rest of the performance is little more than afterthought.
Bono’s sometimes eloquent, sometimes tiresome, always criticized sermonizing is all but absent, perhaps because all of the footage is from concerts in countries where English is not the native tongue. But the centerpiece of the Vertigo Tour shows, wherein “Sunday Bloody Sunday” segues into “Bullet the Blue Sky” while Bono dons a headband/blindfold bearing the command “Coexist,” with an Islamic crescent moon representing the “C,” a star of David the “X”, and a cross the “T,” is as powerful on film as it was in person. A few minutes later, when a recording of a woman reading the U.N.’s Declaration of Human Rights introduces “Pride (In the Name of Love),” you might have to stop yourself from pumping your fist in righteous solidarity.
You’ll want to stay through the credits, which feature some cool animation effects left over, presumably, from the movie proper, as well as a live performance of “Yahweh.”
“You’re all so much smaller in real life,” Bono once told a concert audience. In U23D, the long-lived Irish quartet has finally found the film format to match their outsized ambition. The World’s Biggest Band has become, beyond all argument, the world’s biggest band. Like, quantifiably. Seems appropriate somehow.
U23D opens Jan. 23 at the National Museum of Natural History’s Johnson IMAX Theatre. Advance tickets are available here. The film, if you care, is rated G.