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U2 on life in 3-D

In an Imax concert film, the band gets to enlarge its message of rock and liberalism.

January 23, 2008|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

Some people just won't stop believing in the romance of rock. Hip-hop and dance pop are more innovative; country has a more loyal audience; Josh Groban makes way more money. But being a rock fan is just like getting seduced: You have to believe that your partner is the most potent lover out there. So people still pump their fists for middling talents like Nickelback and keep swooning for the great ones, like U2, years after their sell date should have expired.

Given rock's erotic pull, it's fair to compare "U2 3D," U2's foray into 3-D digital film technology, to a shot of Viagra. And guess what? The potency drug does its job: 85 beautifully paced minutes of crystal clear, artfully lit shots of Bono and his mates doing their inspirational thing for an arena crowd whose joy surges forth like a tiger in an Imax nature presentation is enough to renew the spark with longtime fans and draw in kids who otherwise might not go for older men.

But it's a strange ravishment. U2 has based its phenomenally successful career on the other kind of Romanticism: the belief that intensely wrought personal expression can unite people and change the world. In "U2 3D," this message comes across through shots of band members on catwalks that immerse them in the crowd -- they stand alone, supreme individuals, supported by a mass of loving bodies. "We're one, but we're not the same," sings Bono in "One," expressing the philosophy of both classic rock and liberalism. "We've got to carry each other, carry each other."

Physical experience drives home this message. Screen images, even ones that lunge out at you, can't replace the sweat and din of thousands of fellow fans turned toward those anointed figures channeling all that energy onstage.

"U2 3D" comes very close, though, thanks as much to Olivier Wicki's editing as to those lunging 3-D effects. Co-directors Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington, whose work on U2's 1992 ZooTV tour redefined multimedia-driven arena rock, use the trickery of 3-D digital technology tastefully, rarely going beyond what "the best seat in the house" would actually offer. Wicki skillfully weaves together footage filmed during several dates of a Latin American tour, though a hawk-eyed viewer will notice Bono's myriad unexplained jacket changes.

The occasional stabbing guitar neck or close-up of Bono's noble forehead aside, "U2 3D" mostly relies on the music itself to captivate the viewer. A hits-heavy set list builds excitement as one sweeping anthem merges with another, and the filmmakers wisely focus on the two elements that make every U2 show huge: the band's precision as it moves through its roomy songs, and Bono's reenactment of the hero's journey from regular mate to magic man.

Taken in increments, Bono's theatrics -- stumbling around with a blindfold on, embracing his bandmates like a footballer who's just won the World Cup, falling back as if struck by God or reaching forward to throw imaginary loaves and fishes -- are plain silly. But within the arc of a U2 show, they become convincing. The music simultaneously contains and elevates Bono's enthusiasm; the staging makes it seem modern.

Structuring the arena experience this way through its tours since the early 1980s, U2 made it relevant for its own somewhat cynical generation. "U2 3D" is the next step toward engaging the "iGeneration" (as Bono and others have called it) by proving that what happens in the flesh can feel as potent in a virtual context.

The next wave of concertgoing may indeed be virtual. There's been an explosion of music-related videos and films, from documentaries to screen versions of "one time only" concert events. For this longtime U2 fan, the "U2 3D" experience wasn't quite sensual enough, but to quote another Bono lyric, others may find it "even better than the real thing."

It will depend on the crowds in theaters; if they're willing to cheer and raise the occasional illuminated cellphone (as they did at Sundance), they'll feel connected to each other, not just the images bursting forth from the screen. That connection is U2's paradigm. Only the audience can judge whether "U2 3D" sustains it.



"U2 3D." MPAA rating: G. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. In limited release.

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