The Irish are rockin' in America.
During the middle ages, when Europe was burning witches and most people wouldn't have lived long enough for their teeth to rot if their teeth hadn't rotted so fast, the Arabs took up the torch of learning and kept it alive long enough for Europe to reclaim it almost a millennium later. Without them, our lives would probably be much different today. Whether you float or sink might be the criteria for hiring these days.
Similarly, during the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s, as rock and roll in the US had entered yet another era of bloated corporate sloth, emotionless technopop, and even more emotionless punk, it sometimes seemed like U2 was playing the part of the Arabs, holding the torch of deeply emotional, blues based, rock-as-social-commentary out of the water so that it didn't go out completely. This torch was soon to be taken up again by the best bands of the Seattle era, and rock-n-roll civilization as we know it was saved.
U2's Joshua Tree album was a landmark in the band's musical and social reach I think, with deeply moving songs like "Red Hill Town" and "Where the Streets Have No Name." Unabashedly pissed off touchy feely liberals, they performed moving songs of downtrodden workers, corporate greed, soul saving for cash, and Martin Luther King, with a kind of intensity that would have made their own heroes proud.
The Rattle and Hum tour represented the band in its post Joshua tree stage. At this point, they had not yet turned into almost a parody of the things that they then rejected. They were into sparse staging, minimal posturing and hype, and just letting the music speak for itself. This film of key dates of that tour, captures that spirit wonderfully. Filmed mostly in stark and sometimes grainy black and white, it is 90 minutes of the best of one of the best rock bands of all time.
The film starts in Ireland where the band is warming up for their tour. After a few failed attempts to get them to be serious long enough say anything on camera, the filmmakers wisely just shut up and let the music talk. So mostly its all just concert footage, though there is a little back stage stuff, a trip to Sun Studios in Memphis to record a few oldies, a trip to Graceland, and a trip to Harlem to record with a church choir. The band, being huge devotees of American rock, are exploring the land where their own musical heros came from, and where so many of their fellow countrymen have come over the years.
In one short but particularly interesting section, Edge (the guitarist) and the band are walking through Harlem and they come across an old black guy playing guitar and a hi-hat and another guy blowing harmonica. You can see in Edge's eyes, that he's having an experience somewhat like me meeting the first software engineer. He is staring at his own roots, and the guy's guitar technique is also indicative of the root of Edge's sparse, syncopated, chordal style. The visit to Elvis' Mansion, Graceland, in Memphis is interesting as well. For Americans, brought up in a time where Elvis is a parody of a parody, it's touching to see these guys go there. To them, he's still Thugh King, and his influence and legend is less tarnished. Bono greases up the tour guide to let the drummer take some pictures on Elvis' Harley. They then go to see the grave site, during which I couldn't help but keep thinking about the scene from This Is Spinal Tap.
The visual presentation is a mixed bag. Some of the more intimate shots seem to have been on lower quality equipment, and is a very grainy and noisy black and white. This isn't bad necessarily, since its not out of character with the rest of the film. The rest of the film is higher quality black and white footage, with the end being in color. As I said, the band was into minimalist staging at the time, so there isn't a lot of difference even then. Though its obviously live documentary type footage, with all the quality problems that entails, its more than good enough to present the material.
The 5.1 audio sound track is big, in the sense that they've left a lot of arena ambience in the sound, and a good bit of audience reaction. I found the sound track to be a bit edgy, even on my rather laid back system. Engaging the Lexicon's 5.1 THX processing helped immensely, so I left it on for the rest of the film. All of the live dates on this tour were mega-mondo arena style gigs, not particularly conducive to the highest fidelity recordings.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The obvious point of comparison for me is that of my previous concert DVD, The Talking Head's Stop Making Sense. In a way though, its not an apples and apples comparison. Stop Making Sense was a highly staged event, in a smallish venue, the whole thing was designed specifically for the film, not for the convenience of the audience. So it's better recorded and looks better. Rattle and Hum is more of a documentary of a live tour, with all of the weirdness that that probably entails for a film crew. But, if you are interested in the comparison, the Talking Head's DVD looks and sounds better in every way.
Does this mean anything though? Not to me. They are two different animals. Rattle and Hum stands on its own as a raw testament to the band previously known as U2. Well okay, they are still known as U2, but I don't consider them the same band that made this film. After Achtung Baby, they kinda lost me, though they can still blow when the mood strikes them. If you are a fan of this music, it has more than a few goose pimple raising moments of absolute redemption. It requires that you get yourself into a bit more, because of the technical limitations of the subject matter; but, for fans, that shouldn't be too hard at all.
I could never convict someone that forthright and honest, no matter what. For past contributes to rock-n-roll society, and saving us from oblivion when no one seemed to care, the defendant is set free.
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