January 23, 2008
U2 in 3D: a review
I had a fun surprise last night -- an invitation to preview the new movie U2 3D. Spoiler alert: I'll be telling you how it ends. On the other hand, that might not be so important for a concert film.
U2 fans will absolutely LOVE this movie. I have stood at the feet of all four band members at various points (yes, including Larry -- I was in the very front row on the floor and directly in front of his mini-kit for "Love and Peace Or Else" when I saw U2 in DC). U2 fans know that if you're lucky enough to get tickets for the floor at a U2 concert, you're going to have to make some decisions. In front of Bono, Edge, or Adam, all of whom roam the stage, but have a particular spot to which they keep returning? If you're lucky enough to get into the 'heart' or 'ellipse' that forms a B-stage, are you going to try to be in the very front, knowing that you'll be closer to the band more of the time (being close enough to shout requests -- which they do take sometimes -- or converse a little is VERY fun), but might not be able to see them at all when they roam out on the B-stage?
In U2 in 3D, you don't have to decide; the camera roams. If you want to know the condition of Bono's roots (I'd advise him to lay off the hair dye and stick with his current crew cut) or Edge's pores (best skin in the band, I think), you'll be in heaven. The drawback, of course, is that you don't get to choose on whom you'll focus at a given moment; the director chooses for you. And the director isn't a guitarist, I'll wager; when the camera shows The Edge, there's usually light behind him or something about the angle that prevents you from seeing what he's actually playing. But that's the complaint of a guitar geek, and more often than not, I thought the director's visual choices were solid ones.
The musical choices I would have made differently. For starters, the film in 90 minutes long -- much shorter than a U2 concert. There's no "City of Blinding Lights," which opened most shows on the tour, and that I thought nearly recaptured the exuberance of 80's shows opening with "I Will Follow." "Mysterious Ways" got cut, I believe, as did "Elevation." And one of the most fun things about the Vertigo tour was how many old and seldom-played songs came out again to play -- I particularly loved being there for performances of "The Ocean" and "Cry/The Electric Co.," and I would have loved the chance to see U2 perform "Gloria" and "40" again in the film. But the technical demands and expense of the 3D technology made a longer movie impractical, as I understand it, and the bottom line is that this movie is a blast.
I admit I was wary of the 3D technology; the last time I think I saw something in 3D was from the children's magazine Dynamite, with cheesy glasses, one lens red and one blue, that you tore out of the magazine. The technology is MUCH better than that, as you'd expect, and the 3D contributed to the experience in ways I wouldn't have expected. There were a couple of 3D moments that felt a bit gratuitous -- I don't think I needed to have the neck of Adam's bass zoom out at my face quite as often as I found myself, and watching a 65-foot Bono reach out his hand toward me made me feel a bit like Fay Wray in King Kong, about to be carried up the Empire State Building by a gigantic rock star. And it's annoying enough in an actual concert when someone climbs up on another person's shoulders in front of you; I was even more annoyed in the few (and, thankfully, fleeting) moments when the 3D technology was used to replicate that experience in the film. But the 3D helped to convey the scale and energy of the arena in zooming shots over the crowd, and there's something about it that helped also to convey the chemistry between the band members -- how they communicate and joke around with one another during songs. And the technology was used to great effect during "The Fly," when the words and slogans that flash across screens in concerts drop down or zoom out at you in layers.
The best part of the technology, though, in my experience was the sound. The total surround sound of the IMAX theater made watching the movie feel like being at a concert, but with MUCH higher-fidelity music. The treble is crisp, so Larry's cymbals and even the subtle 'chink' sound of The Edge's trademark guitar picks (dimpled Herdim picks played with the flat end down, creating a percussive sound) came across with astonishing clarity. The bass rumbled impressively, and was brought forward in the mix particularly when the camera was on Adam, and it was the kind of rich bass you feel in your sternum. It felt loud in the ways you want a rock concert to feel loud, but with far fewer decibels; all but the most sensitive should be able to leave the earplugs at home (something that, as a musician, I NEVER do for a concert, and especially when I'm up front in an arena or stadium).
And the performances in U2 3D are classic U2 -- occasionally dramatic to the point of being maudlin or bludgeoning a metaphor, but earnest and moving. Bono's voice isn't what it used to be, but he knows how to use what he's got. The Edge's bluesy solo on "Bullet the Blue Sky" remains one of my favorites of his career. The rhythm section is tight (and Larry fans will rejoice to see lots of his bulging biceps). And this movie is about the music -- Bono doesn't preach more than a couple of sentences at a time between songs, and, interestingly enough, the ONE/Make Poverty History campaign aren't even fleetingly mentioned.
It's possible that politics (even politics with as diverse support as the Millennium Development Goals attract) were minimized in the film to maximize the opportunity posed by U2 3D to win new fans -- people who like U2 when they hear them on the radio, but who would never shell out the money and go through the traffic, crowds, and hassles of a live show. I doubt the film will do much of that. U2 is such a huge band that they're hard to avoid, and I think they've won most of the fans they'll have. That's an awful lot of fans, of course, and now fans of multiple generations (a LOT of parents bring children to U2 concerts, and in many cases, the kids know all the words too). I kind of missed those fans at the movie last night; the preview crowd was a very small one, and it looked to me mostly like executive types (grey hair, arriving in a suit and taking off their tie as they settled into their seats). The cheering and singing along was, I think, all from people in Buenos Ares, where U2 3D was filmed.
But folks, this is as close you'll get to the experience of a U2 concert without going to one -- or until U2's next tour. And that's more than good enough for the fans. U2 3D is a movie I'd be tempted to see again.