The last few months have been fertile times for those interested in seeing and hearing rock and roll on the big screen, and for those compelled to investigate and/or dismantle its mythologies, self-perpetuated or not. Todd Haynes dug into six sides of the publicly orchestrated persona of Bob Dylan, and exploded the conventions of the musical biopic at the same time, with I’m Not There; Julie Taymor dared comparisons with one of the all-time most-derided movies, Michael Schultz’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, by using the music of the Beatles to animate Across the Universe, a visual fantasia on the ‘60s that did not feature the Bee Gees; and photographer Anton Corbijn made his directorial debut with Control, a consideration of the life of Joy Division’s central artistic force, singer-songwriter Ian Curtis, seen through a bleak kitchen-sink glass worthy of Lindsay Anderson.
Control makes for a fascinating double feature with Michael Winterbottom’s 24-Hour Party People (2002), a hilarious mockumentary that swirls within the universe of Manchester music impresario Tony Wilson, who signed the unknown Joy Division to his nascent Factory Records label. And we’re just a week or so away from a serious documentary on the band called simply Joy Division, helmed by Grant Gee, the mastermind behind the brilliant audio-visual collage that documented the pressures of a Radiohead press tour, Meeting People Is Easy; Peter Bogdanovich has a four-hour (!) documentary on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers ready at the starting gate; and the Rolling Stones add to the roster of illustrious filmmakers who have put them on a film (including David and Albert Maysles, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Frank and Hal Ashby) with their upcoming concert film Shine a Light, directed by Martin Scorsese, which premiered recently at the 58th annual Berlin Film Festival to mixed response.
But the movie right now that best expresses the expansive, sometimes overwhelming emotions of a great rock concert, and uses the tools of digital and large-format filmmaking in unexpected, equally expansive ways, just opened in wider release, from an earlier exclusively IMAX-format engagement. In fact, excluding holdovers from 2007 jockeying for late position in the Oscar race, it's probably the best movie out there right now. It is U2 3D, and it will strip away your resistance to the carnival hucksterism surrounding 3D movies and the sometimes plodding earnestness of the average IMAX adventure as well. In its wide release, U2 3D continues in IMAX venues and has been added to the 35mm multiplex market in digital projection-- it opens even wider this coming Friday, February 22. But if you’re near an IMAX theater, it is definitely worth skipping the popcorn and putting that extra snack bar money toward the more expensive ticket.
The frighteningly large dimensions of the screen soon become the first and most familiar way one becomes lost in the visual scheme of the movie, orchestrated from several concerts in Mexico and Argentina by directors Mark Pellington (Arlington Road and the video for U2’s “One”) and Catherine Owens, the woman responsible for the architecture and visual design of U2’s spectacular live shows. But the thing that makes U2 3D unique is the way Owens and Pellington work to integrate the band’s liberal, one-world politics and their familiar anthems of political oppression and personal transcendence within the very technological fabric of the film. There is a set midway through the movie, beginning with “Love and Peace (Or Else)” (from the How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb album), proceeding through “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and “Bullet the Blue Sky,” and climaxing with the indescribably beautiful “Miss Sarajevo” (with Bono substituting credibly and spine-tinglingly for the late Luciano Pavarotti), that Owens and Pellington infuse with so much passion and gorgeously rendered visual information that the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights that follows the set seems almost redundant, an afterthought.
It is the strategy of these directors to eschew the spatial dislocation of the average music video in favor of investigating a whole new use for 3D technology. At no time during U2 3D does Adam Clayton whip the neck of his bass toward the camera and threaten to poke you in the eye with it. Drummer Larry Mullen Jr. never flips his sticks into the theater. The Edge never pulls out a ping-pong paddle and dares the audience to dodge the rubber ball as it shoots out toward them in rhythmic time to "New Year's Day." Instead, Owens and Pellington use the existing stage effects (such as a giant pixilated figure of a man towering over the live audience) and layer that image over one, two, maybe even three different sets of imagery to create a multiple scrim-like depth to the frame. The rules of how to compose the frame and order shot sequences seem to be liquefied with each new set-up. Yet the visuals never seem cluttered or busy, and Owens and Pellington are thankfully uninterested in overheated smash-up editing—- seeing the movie is like reaching into a pool of artful yet never precious moving murals, each layer wondrous on its own yet contributing to a larger picture that is unlike any previous attempt to translate the concert experience, including (and here’s the kicker) its meaning, onto film.
U2 3D is so joyous that it dissolved my resistance to hearing yet again overexposed songs like “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “Pride (In The Name of Love)” because of how the performers, and the film itself, managed to find new ways to infuse them with life, and it does the same for new classics like “Vertigo” and “Beautiful Day.” At its best, and that’s pretty much for its entire running time, U2 3D turns the defensible but no-less-sour misanthropy of something like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, with its fantasies of fascistic, self-destructive rock gods and goose-stepping fans, inside out. Make no mistake, the rock stars here are gods, all right, but benign ones, and by the end of the show the stage, itself no less than Olympian, seems big enough for everyone in the audience.
(The blurry 2D trailer for U2: 3D doesn't hint at the movie's visual acheivement, but it may get you motivated to see it nonetheless...)