Last year was the thirtieth anniversary of U2’s sublime album, The Joshua Tree, and now it’s thirty years since the follow-up album and tour it spawned, Rattle and Hum. Admittedly, some people are still mad at U2 for the Songs of Innocence faux pas, not to mention the seeming shift in beliefs they’ve taken lately, but right now we’re going to forget all that and turn on the Wayback Machine.
I remember buying the album at Nancy’s Records in Auburn, and…totally going to date myself here…it was a time when CDs came in longboxes. For some reason, the cashier tried to talk me out of the purchase, but I was determined to go through with it.
The film has been called self-indulgent by critics, which is an odd bone to pick, considering it’s U2’s film. How dare this upstart band put themselves on the level of the Beatles and Elvis? However, those critics misinterpreted the aim of the movie, which was to pay tribute to the band’s many musical influences, as well as to United States, a country U2 and Bono in particular have always loved. This was America through their eyes. Not only that, but in Adam Clayton’s words, the film was to “capture the band at a particular stage.”
“Capture” is an understatement. This was U2 when they were beginning to tour packed stadiums, and they seem to be feeling rather overwhelmed. Rattle and Hum plays to this all the way through, and it almost makes fun of the whole band-on-the-rise cliché. When director Phil Joanou sits the guys down to interview them, they spout the usual chestnuts about the film being a musical journey, but mostly they just chuckle. Then it cuts to “Desire,” where the band examines ambition and motives. The camera spins dizzyingly to the words, “money, money, money.”
Was U2 enjoying their prestige, or were they in it for the music? It seemed to be both, and as they crisscrossed America, the band makes good use of hitting the big time. The film highlights their collaboration in Texas with B.B. King on “When Love Comes To Town.” King tells him, “You’re mighty young to be writing such heavy lyrics,” and Bono looks highly gratified that this denizen of American music likes his song.
That sense of awe persists when U2 goes to Memphis. There is a recording session at the famous Sun Studio, where Bono sings a rather jumbled version of the Billie Holiday tribute, “Angel of Harlem.” There’s a VIP tour of Graceland, although I doubt even they got to see upstairs, and Bono butters up the tour guide into letting Larry take a picture on Elvis’s motorcycle. Even just gawking at the ships on the Mississippi is a treat for these guys.
Fame wasn’t a prerequisite to sharing the spotlight with U2 in Rattle and Hum. The New Voices of Freedom choir in Harlem did a gospel arrangement of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and the band went to their church, Greater Calvary Baptist, to sing it with them. George Pendergrass and Dorothy Terrell were featured soloists, with Edge on guitar and Larry on conga. Everyone in the sanctuary is beaming when they’re finished. It’s a great moment.
Speaking of great moments, the film includes U2’s infamous lunchtime concert at Embarcadero Square in San Francisco. Bono painted “Rock and Roll Stops the Traffic” on the Vaillancourt Fountain, to the tune, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” although the film plays “All Along the Watchtower” over that bit. I remember when it happened, plenty of people in the Bay Area gleefully chortled and said, “Ooooh, Bono’s in trouble.” I think it’s my favorite part of the film, because I used to chase pigeons in front of that fountain as a little kid, and whenever I’ve been back, even as an adult, the place gives me a nostalgic shiver.
The bulk of the film, is, of course, devoted to concert footage, and it’s all from the band’s point of view. It shows what major events these concerts were becoming–this was the band at the top of their game, and their venues were standing-room only. U2 was young, enthusiastic, and there was nothing holding them back. The stage is their world. Bono, dripping with sweat, never stops moving. Edge and Adam lay on the intensity. Larry leans into the drum kit, his face screwed up in concentration. While they make it look easy, it takes tremendous energy to perform at that level, especially when it’s over many consecutive nights. It’s a good way to stay thin, but it comes at a high price.
However, it does have its compensations. One of the surreal things about the concert sequences is that the band can’t see the audience beyond a few scattered lighters. This is typical onstage. Anyone who’s been on the receiving end of a spotlight knows that performers don’t see a lot of faces during a show, but they can feel the audience’s presence, and the excitement tends to be palpable. Bono gets this goofy smile on his face at the tail end of the film, as if he can’t believe what’s happening.
No, Rattle and Hum is not nearly as self-indulgent as it’s made out to be, but I will say this: How much one enjoys films like this usually hinges on one’s level of fandom, unless there’s a lot of distraction (Looking at you, Katy Perry), and U2 have never been the cutting-up types. Focus seems to be their byword, and their listeners wouldn’t have it any other way.
In terms of history, though, Rattle and Hum is a rock-and-roll classic. So much has happened to U2 since 1988 that the film seems like a relic. If capturing the band at a particular stage in their careers was their aim, they certainly succeeded, especially since they’re now considered influencers themselves.
Hope to see you Monday, when I’ll be participating in a surprise blogathon. Thanks for reading, all…