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Capturing the Reel U2: The Music Is the Message

November 15, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN

DENVER — Youthful movie director Phil Joanou needed to make sure his laminated pass was clearly visible backstage last weekend at U2's concert at McNichols Arena here.

Joanou--whose boyish good looks make him appear much younger than his 25 years--was repeatedly eyed by security guards as he raced back and forth from the stage to a tiny control booth where seven monitors showed what was being captured on film.

Maybe the slender, long-haired kid was some kind of MTV contest winner, speculated one guard who had stopped Joanou to inspect his pass.

Joanou certainly exuded the enthusiasm of a hard-core U2 fan. A Steven Spielberg protege, Joanou has directed two episodes of TV's "Amazing Stories" and earned some good notices for his first film, the teen-oriented "Three O'Clock High."

The night before the first of the band's two concerts, Joanou smiled over dinner at Michael Hamlyn, producer of the documentary film of U2 that Joanou is directing. "I was so excited when I heard about this film, I would have directed it for free," Joanou said.

That eagerness is one reason U2 picked Joanou, a Los Angeles resident who grew up in La Canada, to direct the film, according to the group's manager, Paul McGuinness.

"The band had already interviewed 9 or 10 potential directors before they met Joanou," McGuinness said. "But as soon as they started talking to him, it was clear that he was going to be the one. He's a master technician . . . who is also the same age as the band and is obsessed by music."

Added Joanou: "It was almost spooky. I remember giving a cassette of (U2's) 'Joshua Tree' album soon after it came out to a production designer--a friend that I talk to all the time about movies. I said: 'Go home and listen to this album, because these guys represent the kind of movies I want to be making . . . the content, the commitment, the energy, the point of view that is in that album.'

"So when I heard U2 was going to make a movie, I flew to Hartford to see them--even paid my own way. I don't know what other (directors) said to them, but there was a real air of seriousness on their part about doing this film right.

"Bono (Hewson, the lead singer) asked: 'If you were going to direct the U2 movie, what kind of a film would you make?' I looked at him and said: 'What kind of a film do you want to make?'

"To me, it was essential that the film have all the purity and power of their music."

That purity has caused Joanou some anxious moments.

Sitting in the near-empty arena as U2 finished its sound check, Joanou propped both feet on a seat back and spoke about the eight weeks he has spent on the road with U2. He has been studying the band on stage so he will know how to best shoot the show here and pick up documentary footage off stage.

Joanou said he loves the offstage footage he's got so far, including scenes of the band sitting in with a gospel choir in New York on a version of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and recording new material at the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis, where Elvis Presley got his start.

But he worries he's not getting enough footage. He went a week without shooting a single frame.

"The thing they keep stressing is that this should be a film about music . . . not about them," he said. "You won't see Bono or (guitarist) Edge getting in or out of cars or eating at home, or even talking about their music. They refuse to stage anything. . . .

"I asked them, for instance, if maybe they would come back out and do a song again if we didn't get it very well during the show and they said no. They want it to be spontaneous, which makes things a bit tense. I'm not saying they are not giving me enough cooperation to make the movie, but we're just on the edge."

Even before U2 left Dublin last April to begin a world tour, the Irish quartet was widely regarded as the most acclaimed rock band of the '80s. More than any other group to hit America from across the Atlantic in over a decade, U2 reflected the musical command and sociological force to stand alongside the great bands of the '60s.

When U2 left home in April, the challenge was whether the band could also achieve the massive, broadly based popularity of such groups as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who. Of the bands that surfaced since the punk revolution of 1976, only perhaps the Clash, the Sex Pistols and the Police also made a serious bid for classic rock standing.And each fell short in one or more of the three key areas: huge commercial success, artistic merit and social impact.

Seven months later, as U2 moves through the final leg of its U.S. concert swing, there is little question that the band has joined the list of all-time great bands.

"The Joshua Tree" is arguably the runaway leader for album-of-the-year honors--a richly crafted, multifaceted look at man's spiritual and political state--and the band has attracted a mass following.

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