Ever since the Zoo TV tour, U2’s set designs have resembled Ridley Scott productions. So what could National Geographic Entertainment’s concert film U2 3D—the “first digital 3D, multi-camera, real-time production”, with 5.1 Surround Sound—have to offer besides a more immersive sensory experience? Surprisingly, quite a bit.
This feature—which seamlessly integrates sections of three Argentinian concerts, plus footage from a separate, audience-free, closeups-only shoot—has more in common with one of artist Jeff Wall’s hyper-real light box photographs than it does with the film many consider the gold standard in concert docs, Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense. The camera takes us inside the action—just where you want to be for a musical bacchanal—with unsettling clarity, as when groping arms seem to be reaching upwards from the row directly in front of you. From the stagehands’ vantage point overhead and behind the stage to the super-low angle, audience shoe-level shots to the shoulder-height, fish-eye medium shot of Bono’s hand grasping for your face, no perspective goes unexplored. Yet the cuts and dissolves fly by so fast that you don’t have time to think about directorial intent; you’re absorbed in the overwhelming beats. Codirectors Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington zoom and tilt in on the band from every conceivable angle, yet Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. hold up in the harshest high-definition light; they seem as ageless as CGI characters. It’s not enough to say that watching this concert film is just like being there, but without the crush of sweaty bodies and with a better view. U2 3D lets you be everywhere at once.
3Ality Digital Production chose the right band as its subject and put the right woman in charge of executing it: co-director Owens, U2’s longtime production designer. Like Madonna, U2 has been constantly updating, reinventing for decades. Over time, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” has ceased to be about Ireland’s regional, Catholic vs. Protestant, religious wars and become a plea for peace in the global battle of Muslim vs. Christian. The personal is as political and universal for U2 as it was for Joe Strummer and The Clash (whom Bono cited as inspiring his group’s formation in Julien Temple’s Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten). But when all is said and done it’s still about the music, and in U2 3D, the band delivers a performance whose passion might shake the ground if it had originated on VHS. Such band standards as “New Year’s Day,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “In The Name of Love” and even “Bullet the Blue Sky” served to remind me why War just might be one of the most perfect albums ever recorded. Of course, War came out nearly a quarter century ago, back when adoring fans waved cigarette lighters in the air during encores; in U2 3D, when Bono implores, “Shine your electronic digital lights,” a million cellphones start swaying in Buenos Aires. This could very well be the futuristic, event-centric saving grace that desperate theater owners have been seeking. The tools change, but for Bono and the boys, the meaning stays the same.