01 February 2008

U2: 3D 2B Again

I wanted to write further on U2, having provided a cursory review of the movie U23D in my last post.

I just can't emphasize the effect this group has had on me over the past 20 years. I was a sophomore in high school when The Joshua Tree came out. "With or Without You" had been their big hit from that album, but I was drawn to the two follow-up songs: "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and "Where the Streets Have No Name," particularly the latter's incredible music video which featured a spontaneous concert on a Los Angeles rooftop.

Prior to The Joshua Tree the other great album of 1986-87 had been Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet. My friends and I spent hours listening to that one, and it set off a four year indulgence of hair-metal fandom. U2 gave me a chance to break away.

Here's why. In the way that every Bon Jovi or Def Leppard song was designed to stimulate my teenage hormones (granted, a relatively easy goal to achieve in 1987), U2's songs reached to the heart. In frequent moments of teen angst, I often retired to my living room, put The Joshua Tree in the stereo, turned out the lights, and felt my soul restored.

What was it about this music? Frankly Bono's voice wasn't the strongest in rock 'n roll (and his mullet hairdo was pathetic by 80s standards). U2 were a basic, four-piece band--without the regular keyboardist or two-necked, tricked-out guitars of other 80s rock groups. The Edge had a gift for soaring guitar solos and clever riffs--but he wasn't in a league with Eddie Van Halen or the guy from AC/DC.

I think that part of this was the songs--particularly those on The Joshua Tree where the production created layers of sound (including synthesizers) through which The Edge's riffs could dance and on which Bono's lyrics sailed. For some reason, this small group of Irishmen had crafted the greatest song ever written about Martin Luther King, Jr. (Pride) and the definitive post-modern spiritual, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For.

But an even more crucial element to the band's success was their prowess as a live group. They brought much more to a concert than any band of their era--this must have been what grabbed me about the "Streets" video, something I didn't recognize at the time.

That is why U23D is such a revelation. It is The World's Greatest Rock Band meets The World's Greatest 3D Spectacle. It is a union that pulled a lot of things together for me--about U2 and their music; about myself and my own deepest fears and desires.

Most of the reviews I read focued on the 3D tricks the movie used. Words fly off the stage and hypnotize the audience. The neck of Adam Clayton's base shakes in front of your nose like a wagging finger. Bono reaches out of the screen to draw you into the song.

I was more fascinated by the performance aspect. This was my second U2 concert film (I saw Rattle and Hum in theaters back in 1989), but the first full-length performance by the band I had witnessed. I remembered leaving Rattle and Hum and thinking, "I feel like I've been at church."

What a church it had been. Bono has that ability--all too rare among preachers but more common among rock stars--to deliver every word he says without the slightest hint of doubt or self-awareness.

The songs themselves focus unwaveringly on humanity. One reason reason U2 have stayed together for so long is because the message has always remained larger than the band. Whether they were protesting British police brutality in Northern Ireland in "Sunday Bloody Sunday," through the military excesses of Reagan's America in "Bullet the Blue Sky" to promoting alternatives to the madness of "pre-emptive war" in the present day.

The most significant set in U23D focused on the war/humanity theme. "New Year's Day" kicked off the set. I found myself thinking during this song about my New Year's tradition as a blogger: posting a video of "40." Yet here was another song, "New Year's Day," that seemed equally important. "I will be with you again," merges into "I, I will begin again" in the performances (I haven't found this switch in the recordings.

It's a great New Year's song. It's about renewal. It's post-modern spirituality at its most eloquent.

At the close of the song, Bono got a headband from the audience and put it on. "Coexist," it read, featuring the symbols of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity (see graphic). That moved the group into "Sunday Bloody Sunday." One thing I like about U2 is that they move around the stage well. (This stage features two arms that reach out into the audience.) At the end of "SBS," the drummer, Larry Mullen moved to the end of one of the arms where he played "Love and Peace" on a small drumset that had just one big drum and a cymbal. It was an awesome way to get some attention to the band's founder and key player instead of keeping him hid behind the drum set.

The most meaningful song of the movie for me was the Grammy-winning "Sometimes You Can't Make it One Your Own." Bono dedicated this song to his dad, and he delivered it without his trademark, wrap-around shades--virtually naked, if you will.

I had always interpreted this song in the context of a male-female relationship, but in this new context it became three-dimensional for me. "We fight all the time, you and I, we're the same soul," it says. As Bono sang, an image of a faceless company man appeared, walking in place on the five-story-tall board behind the stage. Bono's image was projected next to it--a lost son, singing to a father who died four years ago.

This was the most moving part of the concert for me. It made me think of my own complicated relationship with my daughter--of the distances that grow between people who should be close in spirit. Later it led to a fun conversation with Jenny about what it might have been like to raise a Bono back in the day!

The movie closed with a moving rendition of "Yahweh," accompanied by a cool cartoon that played in front of the screen, bringing together the themes of the show: humanity, coexistence, love. It was a powerful coda. As the screen went dark, we could hear Bono closing the concert in his traditional way: "Thank you. We will never forget this...ever. Thank you so very much."

It was I who was thankful, believe me.

I'll close with a link to a video of "Yahweh."

1 comment:

Brian A. said...

I saw the movie Tuesday. Good stuff.

I shook my head at shelling out $12.50 to see a midday movie (not a big entertainment spender), but I guess that's much cheaper than attending a concert. Plus I got to be much closer to the stage than I'd ever get in person.

I typically don't think about such things on quite as deep a level as you--I just like the music. But one thing that did strike me as I watched footage from Latin American concerts--the universal language of music.

There are a lot of things I don't have in common with the fans filmed at the concerts. But I bet the music evokes plenty of common emotions for people of all cultures--be they expressed in English, Spanish, Latin, or whatever.