The line between the rockumentary and the concert movie tends to get blurred by sheer subject matter, but generally the movies in this genre tend to come in between two scales. The first side is to show the act the prime of their powers, playing to loving crowds in well managed performances that showcase just what made them the popular act they were. The second is to make the main subjects look like absolute bell ends. On one side you have the cinematic joy that accompanies the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night, and on the other the perpetual man-babies of Metallica in Some Kind of Monster.
U2’s Rattle and Hum – like the concert film for another eighties heavyweight Madonna: Truth or Dare – ends up being a bizarre mix of both. When the movie settles down into the concerts for The Joshua Tree, it contains many of the best recorded performances of the band’s career. But when it is not doing that it is an overreaching love-letter to American music that is the shining exhibit of the band’s ego.
And these two sides are made more obvious when you consider that all the worst parts of the movie are in the first half. Edge’s “scrapbook” comments on the film are more on the money than he might realise, because the first forty-five minutes are a series of vignettes of U2 visiting places and performing concerts that aren’t really put together with any kind of momentum. In fact, the editing occasionally takes away that momentum, such as in the band’s duet with B.B King constantly cutting away to Bono talking to him on a couch, showing him a selection of lyrics and how proud he is of them. They move from place to place so quickly in black and white cinematography that, without the tags telling us we’d changed locations, it’s hard to get a sense of them moving around America.
The movie’s style can be seen as a bizarre melding of Don’t Look Back and Stop Making Sense, but to be fair those comparisons are very much a product of the movie’s cinematography. As mentioned the first half is black and white with Robert Brinkmann – who at the time only had a few credentials – in charge of duties. Many claimed that these sections were under lit, but it actually fluctuates between being over and under lit depending on any given song. On many an occasionally the screen will be overpowered with lens flare, forming around band members like halos or crosshairs from heaven. There are some great ideas in these sections, like in the performance of “Desire” spins around to give the same kind of rolling motion the song conveys, but otherwise the lighting does not really stick out. The black and white photography made a fair amount of sense for a documentary on U2, as it replicated the feeling of Anton Corbijn’s famous album stills, including the cover of The Joshua Tree. The problem here is that with the higher frame rate sequences, the low angles and tracking shots, it all helps to give the band a ridiculous looking level of reverence for the band.
The silliness gets amplified with the actions in the film itself. One notable example is in U2’s performance of “All Along the Watchtower”, which is intercut with a misguided attempt from Bono to be “Edgy” (ha) by writing a piece of graffiti on a monument reading “Rock and Roll Stops the Traffic,” a statement that is less an indication of being Punk Rock than a sign that maybe Mary Whitehouse and Tipper Gore were right all along. It later turned out that the artist had given Bono permission to do this, but that information only adds to how calculated and ultimately unrewarding the stunt is.
I already touched on some of Bono’s other examples of preachiness, but the other members of the band can fall victim to a lack of self-awareness. Like Bono’s performance in “Silver and Gold,” Clayton gives a speech about what the film we are watching is actually about (though to be fair he is seen on screen to be given leading questions). The Edge says at one point how hard the business of music is, and whilst I have seen enough music documentaries to know that this statement is likely true, in Rattle and Hum the tour in question looks a lot of fun, playing with different musicians, visiting famous locations, and generally seeing the sites they intended. So Edge’s comments end up looking a little whining compared to, say, the visual/audio onslaught of Radiohead’s Meeting People is Easy.
But the silliness moment of the movie comes from the normally quiet Larry Mullen. Because apparently no-one on the team had seen This is Spinal Tap, U2 goes to Graceland to visits Elvis’ grave. After talking about how much he was inspired by Elvis, or specifically his movies (“he wasn’t just a car salesman. He was a car salesman who liked to play guitar”), there are shots of Mullen looking over the gaudy grave as he then monologues about how he wished he wasn’t buried where people could visit. I guess it was just too much fucking perspective.
So yeah, all of that makes the film sound quite unbearable. But after a cut to black during the opening notes of “Where the Streets Have No Name,” in fades colour, and with it some greatness. The second half of the movie behaves very much like a normal concert film, with duties of cinematography now going to Jordan Cronenweth – the man who shot Stop Making Sense and that unusual detective story Blade Runner – and the change in direction benefits the film greatly. Sure, the strange reverence is still there, including a bizarre moment in which Bono’s face is imposed with Martin Luther King, the implications of which, if intentionally drawing a parallel between the two, is pretty offensive (though I don’t think that was the intention). But apart from that one strange moment the light and direction enhances the band’s performances, be it the wash of blues and reds depending on the tone of the song, the light highlighting Bono’s face during the performance of “MLK”, and the light grids that the band stands on during “With or Without You” combining with smoke to create a great ethereal environment. The change is so sudden – like If or the Wizard of Oz – that it ends up feeling the whole movie was building up to this point. Unfortunately that is compromised by some shots and a performance that goes back to Black and White.
Fortunately that also builds up to the best moment of the movie. During the tour a terrorist attack occurred in Ireland, in which members of the IRA bombed a parade of old age pensioners and killed twelve people. In light of this, the band go into a performance of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” – one tinged with thoughts of those that died – and in the middle of the song Bono goes into a very emotional, very real sounding rant sparred by comments from Irish-Americans praising the revolution. Bono replies: “Fuck the revolution!” It’s a moment that’s raw, immediate, like music in that you just feel it in your guts. Other political moments in Rattle and Hum kill the atmosphere, but here it helps drive the performance, and the performance helps to drive the message.
And that performance isn’t on the album. I guess Bono didn’t know a good thing when he had it.
Rattle and Hum is a mess. But it’s an ambitious mess, and one that has its share of great moments. When the film settles down into the concert, with the hits everyone is familiar with, it can honestly reach levels of greatness that Stop Making Sense also achieved. It’s a shame that the rest of the movie is misguided both in intent and in where its actually going. For some people, that last half is enough. But for other people it did for U2’s reputation what Gimme Shelter did for the Hell’s Angels.