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Rattle And Hum (#110 of 2)

A Dangerous Idea: U2’s Achtung Baby Turns 25

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A Dangerous Idea: U2’s Achtung Baby Turns 25
A Dangerous Idea: U2’s Achtung Baby Turns 25

In Phil Joanou’s 1988 documentary Rattle and Hum, U2 guitarist the Edge, né David Howell Evans, gives the backstory of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” before he, Bono, and a full Harlem church choir launch into a rousing live take of the song. “[It’s] a gospel song pretty much,” he says. “It doesn’t sound much like a gospel song the way we do it, but if you look at the lyric and the basic music, that’s exactly what it is.”

This is U2 one year removed from the incredible success of The Joshua Tree, freshly anointed as the biggest band in the world. The Rattle and Hum film, which accompanied a double album of the same name, was less a follow-up to The Joshua Tree than a conscious evasion of U2’s proper next step: Designed in the Exile on Main Street mold, it shuffles messily between formulaic Americana, cover songs, and live versions of tracks released just 19 months prior. It sold 14 million copies and didn’t do much to hurt U2’s brand, but further confused whether this band—once so serious and political, at times dangerous—cared most about the message, the art, or the money.

The Conversations: Rock Concert Films

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The Conversations: Rock Concert Films
The Conversations: Rock Concert Films

Jason Bellamy: For one of my younger brothers, 2010 was the summer of music. Approaching his junior year at the University of Oregon, he spent the past few months attending about every concert that came his way in the Pacific Northwest. The criteria seemed to be this: If the concert was within driving distance and featured loud (preferably metal) bands that hadn’t had a big hit since before he was born, he was going. And so he rocked to Iron Maiden, Cinderella, the Scorpions, Billy Idol, and more. He rocked at large arenas and relatively intimate county fairs, sneaking up to the front of the stage when he could to snap pictures that he would eventually file along with similar snapshots of bands like AC/DC and KISS.

My brother loves music—if he’s partial to rock and metal, he’s rather indiscriminate within that genre (if you couldn’t tell). But I think the biggest reason my brother attends concerts is because he loves the energy of the live events, where he doesn’t just hear the music but feels it, too. Even when you’re pressed shoulder to shoulder with other attendees, and even when the musicians are so far away that you need to rely on the video screens to see the musicians’ expressions, there’s something very intimate and magically visceral about concerts. You can know every note and lyric of a band’s work from listening to their albums, but somehow seeing them live makes us feel as if we know them better, or know them for the first time.

Maybe that phenomenon is what inspires filmmakers to make concert documentaries in the first place: the challenge of simulating the feeling of being there. There are numerous films about musical artists—from A Hard Day’s Night (1964) to Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (1970) to Bob Dylan: No Direction Home (2005) to This Is It (2009)—some of which go backstage, some of which play historian, some of which are hardly about music at all, and so there’s no way we could have an all-encompassing discussion about that larger cinematic genre and its many sub-genres. Still, it’s a genre worth tackling, and so in this discussion we’re going to focus on five films—Woodstock (1970), Gimme Shelter (1970), Stop Making Sense (1984), Rattle and Hum (1988) and Instrument (2001)—that despite their incredible diversity have one thing in common: their chief aim seems to be to replicate the sensation of being there. And in the case of the first film, Woodstock, the music might be the least interesting part of that experience, am I right?