U2 3D

Directed by Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington, 2008

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You could make a case for U2 as the most overdocumented rock group in recent history. Not only does ample concert footage exist from each period in the band's evolution (starting with 1983's Red Rocks video, Under a Blood Red Sky, which established the band as a premier arena act), but the band even had its own theatrically released rockumentary, Rattle and Hum, back in 1988. Some two decades later, the band has a somewhat longer-toothed demeanor — there's nothing in U23D that's as fiery as Bono's famous "Fuck the revolution!" declaration (directed at the IRA during a performance of "Sunday Bloody Sunday") from Rattle and Hum, and the band slides easily into a formidable but ultimately comfortable groove. If you're looking for moments of real excitement or spontaneity in performance, well, you'll certainly have to look to a band with a less rigorously choreographed sound-and-light show.

If there wasn't anything going on in U23D besides musicianship, I wouldn't be writing about it. This is an extraordinary concert film because it does what I wouldn't have thought a concert film was capable of doing any longer -- it shows you something new. I've never considered 3D more than a gimmick (even that recent high-water mark of the genre, Beowulf, had me wishing I could remove those damnable plastic glasses by the halfway point) but the depth effects in U23D are astonishing. During the first few numbers, co-directors Mark Pellington and Catherine Owens (the former is an accomplished music-video director who made Arlington Road, the latter an Irish artist and U2 confidante for many years) revel in using cameras placed inside the audience. The effect of seeing the backs of crowd-members heads, their hands and fists jabbing into the air, and the startling splash from bottles of water whipped aloft, is galvanizing.

Things only get better as the movie progresses, and different points of view are composited on top of one another on screen. It's the kind of visual that shouldn't work in 3D, where juxtaposed images of dramatically different scales tend to confuse your eyes, which are trying to focus on a type of moving image that they never encounter in reality. But something significant has happened behind the scenes, since the film's editorial team can layer images and cut between angles with apparently reckless abandon. What's more, the subtle differences between left-eye and right-eye points of view have been left intact, meaning that familiar cinematographic effects like lens flares, or light washing across the frame, get a dimensionality all their own -- watching a concert filmed this way is like using binoculars instead of a telescope. The result is an enveloping kind of cinematic space that I've never seen before. I hesitate to use hyperbole to describe the effect, but "magical" is a word that comes to mind. I immediately wanted to see a Wong Kar-wai film shot in stereo, where layered images on different depth planes could suggest memory versus experience, or could juxtapose the actions of lovers separated by time or space but reunited in a single (doubled?) frame.

The stereographic effects go deliriously over the top in the band's encore performance. "The Fly," from U2's too-much-information period, is accompanied by a snowstorm of typography cascading down, in front of, behind and around a singing Bono. Creative on-screen uses of words and letters are hardly a new idea in the realm of music video, but you have to see it to believe how arresting the effect is in 3D. U23D is, among other things, a tech demo for next-generation 3D cinematography, and tons of money was doubtless spent both behind the cameras and in post-production to make sure that each shot was tweaked to produce exactly the desired effect without inducing viewer fatigue. So this is clearly a best-case scenario for 3D production, and I remain skeptical that a large proportion of films will actually benefit from the technology. (Pixar's nearly flawless Ratatouille, for instance, would have exactly nothing to gain from being rendered in 3D.) But this is a truly exciting production -- not just a dazzlingly unique concert film (how rare is it for a reviewer to legitimately deploy unique as an adjective?), but an exuberant glimpse of things, maybe, to come. B+

Posted by Bryant Frazer on January 20, 2008 5:10 PM

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