Ever since the momentous Woodstock four decades back, the art of capturing a rock band on film has proved to be vitalizing, idealistic and at times downright disastrous. The paramount performances have tended to make the artists appear larger than life however, the crux of this enormity has often resulted as underlining tension whether it being The Band breaking up in The Last Waltz , Bono's political rants in Rattle and Hum or the Altamont disaster the Rolling Stones experienced in Gimme Shelter . With the advent of the DVD, live concert releases have become the norm and I have a full library full of them. Sadly, they often don't live up to expectations. It may be poor editing, key songs left on the cutting room floor or the horrifying trend of shooting concerts on video over film. However, there has been one concert performance on screen that has been revelatory and until recently was untouchable. The Rolling Stones At the Max , a 1991 IMAX film showcased this larger than life band to be just that on IMAX screens that were taller than buildings. I remember witnessing the show and it was so defining that I largely consider it my first live Stones experience. Jagger didn't move like a rock God…but exactly like a God. Richards, Wood, Wyman and Watts all had their steel precision accentuated by a boisterous soundtrack and assaulting skyscraper images. I never thought that any concert experience would ever touch that one…until now.
Ever since I was a child, I was fascinated with the idea of 3-D technology. I remember our local Fox affiliate advertising one of the glorious B-Monster movies to be shown in 3-D and I headed to my local grocery store to get the glasses. My babysitter coming over and we got all set on the sofa to watch the movie and I couldn't tell any different with or without the glasses. Needless to say, it was a deflating and banal experience and soured me on 3-D films forever. A little over a year ago, I caught a 3-D presentation of Tim Burton's A Nightmare Before Christmas and was pleased to find that the medium had improved immensely, but for one reason or another, despite other 3-D showings at the same theater, I didn't seek any of them out. All of this brings us to U2 3D , for which I must admit, until press screenings of the film, I was less than excited for. "Why not just do a flat out IMAX film?" I thought to myself. However, as I made my way to one of the first showings of the film, right from the moment where the lights dimmed and the company logos appeared on screen, there were gasps of shock and awe…without having a single credit roll. As everyone tried to pick their jaws up from the floor, I knew this would be the definitive 3-D experience.
The film opens with fans outside the stadium and once through the gates, they make rush to get into that pit in front of the stage. One thing American audiences don't always realize is that countries like South America don't get a lot of rock concerts and when they do, it's as if the Pope himself is visiting and they treat the experience like a religious one. Their hearts, bodies and mind bleed for the music and it shown gloriously in this film. From the runner inside the stadium, the film effortlessly segues to "Vertigo" which was an awesome assault on your visual and sonic senses; I immediately knew at this moment that the U2 had outdone the Stones with this spellbinding camera work and special effects. Ironically, what made the film so sweepingly impressive was the 3-D visual. As Larry Mullen Jr. muscularly wails on his drum kit, an overhead camera gives us a shot unlike any we've ever seen before. I could see the ice cubes in the drink next to his kit pulsate amidst the liquid and glass, making you feel like you were in the hurricane middle of the concert. Adam Clayton veered his bass right in front of my eyes and I jolted backwards because the shot felt real. As "Beautiful Day" was transported with understated perfection, I began to recognize that U2 have never sounded as vivid or euphoric as they did right at this moment on screen. The music mix wasn't just coherent; it was revelatory as I'd never heard the song sound as fresh or organic as it did here. The Edge commanded the screen and as the chorus swelled I felt I was standing right next to him experiencing it while hearing the music as if I was in a first rate recording studio.
"New Year's Day" continued the sprawling experience and even if it's tiresome to some long standing U2 fans, I can guarantee you; you've never seen it like this before. "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" gave me my first goose bump moment as Bono's vocal performance is laced with ostentatious emotions which overflowed on screen. Due to its static inclusion nightly on the last tour I grew a bit tired of the song, but here it was novel once again. "Love and Peace or Else" is a U2 hymn for the ages. This song underwhelmed me on record, but in concert it took on another life with an intense anticipation and a thunderous foreplay drum beat which segues into "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Bullet The Blue Sky" where the emotional, entrenched and earnest Bono rules the stage where U2 raises the stakes from a worldwide perspective which isn't so much a lecture as a epic story arc executed to perfection. It's capped with a pleading and unforgettable vocal on "Miss Sarajevo" and the triumphant "Pride" which found Bono so close to you, that you could see arms reaching out from their seats in hopes of touching him. The only person who is provided a better seat than the viewer is the occasional fly who winds up on Bono's shades; this is how superbly unsubtle directors Mark Pellington and Catherine Owens have made this film.
"Where The Streets Have No Name" defies expectations with a unyielding drive and explosive opening that is a contender for greatest live song ever; cue goose bump moment number two. The uplifting oomph this song brings to every U2 show is a resurrection. I've seen the band have an off night and when the opening kicks in, the audience truly roars to life. The film performance captures the rampant enthusiasm of band and fan as the song reaches new heights. "One", arguably one of the most preeminent songs ever written and recorded, is conveyed with poignant and elegant syncopation coherently allowing the fixating lyrics to shine through. "The Fly" provided a potent mix or irony and alternative rock mayhem as the performance was straight out of Zoo TV with the images and words flying at you providing a tour de force 3-D experience. The triumphant finale of "With Or Without You" provided goose bump moment number three as the band elegantly and slowly seduced the audience before the intoxicating and glorious crescendo providing the ultimate sing-a-long moment. As the credits rolled, not a single person moved or left their seat as the images were just as enthralling as "Yahweh" found the band taking immeasurable lyrics and being able to leave the grandeur of their stage for an intimate performance that brought the film full circle; from an intense and copious opening to a serene and heartrending finale.
Even though the band played it safe with the song selection for this film, each song was executed gloriously with an intense outlook on the thematic and spiritual aspects of the larger whole. I've seen U2 twenty-plus times and I felt as if I were witnessing the breathtaking abandonment of these songs for the first time. U2 has always had the spiritual angle of their of their concerts executed with precise perfection. Between the world-weary ballads, the warm vintage feel of their anthems and the blissful conviction of their performances you really do believe that they are doing all of this for a higher power than money. Making a 3-D film could not have been an easy decision and the results could have been disastrous, but the band forged ahead and took a chance and as a result created an experience for the ages. For such an expansive and larger than life experience, the film gradually takes you on a journey to feel the roar of the crowd, throw you smack dab in the middle of it while simultaneously providing a truly intimate and unforgettable experience. The reason U2 is often heralded as the one of the most vital, important and grand bands ever is because of their ability to forge forward while not alienating those who have put them where they are. Only the Beatles and Rolling Stones have taken as many chances. U2 is still alive and vital because they have a penchant for never living in the past and never making decisions with their wallets. Whatever money that has been sunk into this film, I'm not sure if it will reap giant financial rewards, but what I can guarantee you, is that whether you are a U2 fan or not, U2 3D will leave you breathless and the entire experience will be etched in your mind for all time.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and can be found at The Screen Door and can be contacted by clicking here.