Band of Gold
Premiere Magazine (November 1988 Issue) by David Rensin (1988-10-04)
Against a blood red backdrop, four silhouetted figures file onstage to the pomp of a prerecorded organ. Dry ice smoke billows, and sparks crackle from lightning boxes. When a familiar guitar riff slices audaciously through the haze, Paul “Bono” Hewson, lead singer of U2, parts the ranks of the scurrying film crew and solemnly approaches the microphone. He is dressed in black, from his cowboy hat to his boots. The drums crescendo. Arc lights burst into blinding white. Bono faces the stadium and waves as “Where the Streets Have No Name” surges behind him. He starts to sing: “I want to run, I want to hi— “
“Okay, cut…cut!” shouts director Phil Joanou. “Let’s do it again.”
It’s mid-December 1987 at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona, where the final two concerts for U2’s theatrical feature, U2 Rattle and Hum, will be filmed. (The title is taken from a line in their song “Bullet the Blue Sky.”) The eagerly anticipated $5 million movie, due this month from Paramount Pictures, will use onstage and offstage footage to document a breakthrough year in the evolution of rock’s reigning supergroup and social conscience — all the while staying tightly focused on the music. With such ambitious predecessors as Gimme Shelter, The Last Waltz and Stop Making Sense as models, U2 and Phil Joanou insist they will find a way, albeit their own way.
On this desert evening, however, between thunderstorms, everything has taken a backseat to exhaustion. The first show is still 24 hours away, but everyone is drained because Joanou still isn’t through filming a staged version of the show opener, the only simulation the band has allowed in three months of shooting. To punch up their flagging energy, the band tries humor: Bono sings snatches of “Dear Prudence,” and U2’s guitarist, Dave “the Edge” Evans, plucks the intro of “Stairway to Heaven.” Bono has already suggested during one break that he’d “like the movie to be fuckin’ over, that’s for sure.”
A few takes later, Bono is left wry and dry. “Listen, Philip,” he says to Joanou. “How would Bono play this, man? I mean, what’s my motivation?”
He’s talking about a scene, but Bono might be talking about the movie itself. There’s the obvious reason for doing Rattle and Hum: film, not long-form video, is the class act considered appropriate to U2’s immense popularity and image-conscious nonimage. To critics and audiences alike, the four-man Irish group stands alone as the ’80s preeminent rock ‘n’ roll band. Such songs as “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Gloria” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” have tackled religious and political issues, and the group’s musical blend of American arena rock and European atmospherics has won U2 a following of almost unequaled devotion. And given stardom’s fleeting grace and the ever-changing face of U2’s music, Rattle and Hum is meant to capture a career phase in a cinematic memory album. “It’s selfish in that sense,” says Bono during an interview in late May of this year, when the band was in Los Angeles to work on the album accompanying the film. “There’s vanity involved here. We’re shedding a skin. We don’t know what we’re going to turn into.”
There’s a bit of climbing-Mount Everest-because-it’s-there thinking going on as well. After its album The Joshua Tree sold 14 million copies worldwide and its 1987 U.S. tour grossed $35 million, U2 can afford to bypass the rock film-shy studio money men who initially balked at the project’s cost and pay for Rattle and Hum itself.
To be successful, the film must attract an audience outside the hard-core U2 followers. And while Bono claims allegiance only to band loyalists, he does confess an interest in those “who feel that U2, in going into big arenas and playing stadiums, has lost something. You know the type. I was one of them. I’d like to get them. The cynics, the hard-hearted bastards.”
“The key to a successful concert film, besides who’s in it, is the experience of viewing it,” says Stephanie Bennett, producer of Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. “It’s the antithesis of an arena. People shush you.” “The greatest challenge of the picture,” says Joanou, “is to make something that was live feel live in the theater.” He knows the stakes are high. “The pressure is on me to deliver a good film,” he says. He knows that if the film fails, U2 fans won’t blame the band. “They’ll blame the guy they don’t know. Me.”
“They think they’re filming a movie!” concert promoter Barry Fey announces to the impatient first-night crowd in Tempe. “We’re here for a rock ‘n’ roll show!”
The crowd boisterously agrees. Sixty thousand U2 worshippers are ready to be blown away. Finally, the lights dim, and a familiar scene repeats itself. Only this time, “Where the Streets Have No Name” flows smoothly from start to finish.
But onstage, the band seems inhibited by its concessions to the film crew. During “With or Without You,” the cameras converge on Bono, cutting off his contact with the crowd. For “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” the Louma crane hangs behind his shoulder with all the grace of a brontosaurus. Later, Bono changes the order of the songs in the set, but Joanou can’t accommodate the changes, since the camera operators all have their microphones open and no one can hear him.
After Bono closes with “Good night and God bless, and remember, next time you’re in Dublin, ask for me,” it’s clear that Fey’s declaration has turned out to be ironically prophetic, squarely targeting the fundamental conflict of the evening and the entire film: the needs of the movie versus the needs of the performance.
During a backstage postmortem — also filmed for the documentary portion of the film — Joanou outlines the problems for his black-clad crew. He includes, among many gripes, the miserable communication system. (“Tomorrow night I’ll stand out there with flash cards if I have to”) and uninspired camera work. “At one point, I had six medium shots of Bono, and I couldn’t cut to anything but the helicopter,” he says, groaning. “Come on, guys…We did not get it tonight. I repeat: We did not get it. Maybe three songs.”
Phil Joanou was never on U2’s list of directing candidates. The 26-year-old USC film school graduate had a meager resume, which included two episodes of Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories and the feature Three O’Clock High. But when Joanou learned about the project during dinner with a friend in Los Angeles, he flew at his own expense to Connecticut, where the band was staying, to pitch himself. U2 liked him immediately. “He understood the music,” says the Edge. Joanou told the band he might not be the perfect choice: “After we talked all night, I said, ‘Listen, if I were you, I would hire Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme or George Miller. You’ll get an incredible concert film.’ “
The band members had met with other directors, including Jonathan Demme, whom they wanted to work with. But ultimately they were troubled by the possibility of invidious comparisons with Demme’s Talking Heads feature, Stop Making Sense. To Joanou’s surprise, U2 invited him to Dublin two days later. “Seven days after meeting them, I was the director of the picture,” he says.
From the beginning, neither Joanou nor the members of U2 seemed sure what kind of film to make. There was an instant consensus, though, that the typical rock doc’s fondness for dressing-room, hotel, airports and interview shots should be avoided. Scenes with band members’ families were banned, as well as any filming in the group’s home base of Dublin. And, surprisingly, Bono was even wary of concert material: most live U2 footage he’d seen seemed “like pornography to me.”
Joanou’s plan was to compose the film in thirds. There would be black-and-white 33mm concert footage from two Denver arena concerts; color from two fully (and expensively) movie-lit outdoor shows in Tempe; and documentary footage, shot in black and white with hand-held 16mm cameras so that Joanou and director of black-and-white photography Robert Brinkmann could follow the band on tour and not have to lose spontaneity by lighting each situation. More footage would be shot during looping and the recording of the album in Los Angeles in the spring. The idea was sketchy, light on point of view but heavy on coverage — not unusual for a film with sizeable intentions and no script. Joanou, cognizant of the evolutionary process that gives birth to final structure, was privately hoping something more would emerge.
Convincing the band members to allow him to shoot documentary footage despite their feat of cliche took some doing. But they didn’t want a straight concert film, so they agreed. “After a while, when we got to know each other, it was like, ‘Oh, come on, let’s go to the bar and bring the cameras,’ “ says Joanou. “So I’ve got limo stuff. I’ve got backstage stuff.” He grins. “It’s fun to see U2 screw around.”
Only when the cameras detracted from the music did the group ask Joanou to turn them off. “The only thing that reassured us was knowing that it was a movie that we were involved in,” adds the Edge. “No one was going to run off with that footage and exploit it in a way that we’d be embarrassed by.”
“Being on a stage is a special place, a place apart,” says Bono. “It’s where I reach down into myself and bring up stuff. It’s often jumbled up. There’s light in there, and darkness. There are times onstage when I completely lose myself. I write a lot about violence, and when I’m singing those [songs], I can get caught up in that. Over the years — and I’m not proud of it — I’ve thrown the drum kit into the audience, lit the guitar on fire. I knew I might do something I’d regret in time, so I had to be sure that there was somebody filming this who would sensitive to that.”
In other words, Joanou was willing to discuss the inclusion of a questionable sequence rather than play the piqued auteur. “Yeah,” says Bono, “we’ve got an agreement, unwritten, almost unsaid: If we really hate something and he can’t convince us that our reasons aren’t true to what the band is about, then we win.”
But Joanou often prevailed. “Philip is a clever bastard,” Bono continues, laughing. “He says all the time, ‘Oh, you know, I’m collaborating and making the film with you.’ But he’s not, really. He’s making the film he wants to make, because as long as he can keep coming up with good reasons for doing things, nobody can say no. We can’t just come up with an answer like, ‘We don’t like it.’ He’s having his way all the way.”
By the tour’s end, in mid-December, Joanou’s perseverance had netted 150 hours of documentary footage (on top of the concert film) that would have to be cut to roughly 30 minutes to be wrapped around the final twelve or thirteen songs and squeezed into a 95- to 105-minute package. Highlights of the dailies included U2 singing with the New Voices of Freedom, a Harlem gospel choir; recording at Sun Studio in Memphis; working with B.B. King; and taking a private tour of Graceland.
On the second night in Tempe, the passion belongs first to the audience and then to the show. Joanou also has his hands full — mobilizing twelve cameras, a helicopter and a crew of 120. He needs total coverage and inspirational shots. It’s the last stand, and the film is on the line.
Joanou can see the action on nine of his ten monitors. The last refuses to function, instead picking up an episode of Murder, She Wrote. But he ignores that screen for the thrill of watching song after song, from the glorious “Pride (In the Name of Love)” to the hush of “Mothers of the Disappeared.” Joanou barks orders, coaxes shots with a lover’s whisper, pounds his hands and stamps his feet with glee, and sometimes simply stares, mouth agape, at what he hopes are his cinematic dreams come true.
“Beautiful, beautiful,” he chants when, during “Helter Skelter,” one camera perfectly frames Bono lying on the dolly tracks. Joanou reaches out and touches the monitor, as if he could become one with the cameraman through sheer desire. “This guy is a fucking genius,” he says of Bono. His fingertips linger on the screen, then slide slowly down.
In the lobby of the Arizona Biltmore, before a party that will last almost until a 7 a.m. flight carries the band back to Dublin, Joanou is his usual exuberant self. Hyped. “It’s Raging Bull meets Apocalypse Now,” he babbles. “Tonight rivals the second night in Denver! The first night was like the championship jitters. Tonight they came out like a lion unleashed!”
After Tempe, Joanou returns to Los Angeles and begins the monumental task of sorting through the spoils. Sequestered each day in his editing room at Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, on the Universal lot, he races to meet his next deadline on the way to an October (except in the U.S.) release date. The band has told him, “Cut it. We trust you. We’ll see you in April.” By February he is ahead of schedule, with 21 songs assembled from 450,000 feet of 35mm film. His secret: working with six monitors at once, cutting everything on video. In March, just before the Grammy ceremonies, Joanou flies to New York and screens two and a half hours of songs for the band.
Afterward, Bono says, “I left the room and went outside thinking, ‘This guy’s worked very hard, I’d better not say anything.’ “ But Joanou followed and asked his opinion. “So I said, ‘I think it’s crap.’ And Philip said, ‘Good, because I also think it’s crap here and here; that’s what’s putting you off the whole thing.’ “
Bono’s complaint: some songs just don’t feel right. For example, “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Though the clip is cut from the excellent second Tempe show, Bono insists it “lacks mystery.”
Back in Los Angeles, Joanou reviews first-night footage he’d previously discounted and decides that the presumed shortcomings of the opening Tempe show work unexpectedly in that song’s favor. He quickly assembles a new version of the song with only 15 cuts, as opposed to the original’s 50, enhancing the mystery. The band approves it. “That’s the art of making movies,” says Joanou philosophically. “Go on a set, and you realize that everything is fabricated. All that matters in the end is what’s inside the frame.”
In late March, Joanou is in his cramped and humid editing room, wading through 250,000 feet of 16mm documentary material. He cues a reel on the Steenbeck to show some classic moments. In a Graceland basement record room, the band is looking at Elvis’s collection of monkey statues. “It’s like Michael Jackson vibes,” Bono whispers to the Edge, either unaware he is being recorded or finally free of camera consciousness. Joanou slaps the desk and howls. “It’s my favorite part of the tour footage,” he says. “Of course, it probably won’t make it into the final film.”
Joanou also previews Bono chasing squirrels during a stroll around the mansion grounds, the band at Elvis’s grave and U2 staggering through Graceland’s Hall of Gold Records, gawking at the profusion of glittering discs covering the walls. “Look. Look at Bono’s face,” he urges. “God! U2 has a few platinum albums and is currently one of the biggest bands in the world. Yet walking through there must put things in perspective.”
Joanou worries about what will make the film different from others of the genre. “I wish on certain occasions that I had cared less about making sure the band was really happy with what I was shooting and had just shot it all.” He is depressed about not having filmed the band in Dublin. “Only an idiot wouldn’t get that,” he says. “I’m going to make a big pitch for it when they arrive next month. I’ll fight if I have to.” Joanou pushes a shock of sweat-drenched hair from his face and gulps his soda. “I wish at times that I could just show up, suddenly knock on Bono’s door, with the crew. And the film would be rolling. And he’d say, ‘Phil, what are you doing? Get out of here.’ And that would be in the movie, too.”
By late May, Joanou’s wish has come true: he has shot 140,000 additional feet of 16mm film covering U2 recording new songs on a 48-track remote setup in a huge, empty factory — in Dublin. “I suggested we go back there rather than do everything in America, and they agreed,” he says, glowing.
After spending a year with U2, he considers the newest material the backbone of the film. “We didn’t approach the making of the documentary knowing what the story was,” he admits. But after viewing all the best documentary sequences and hearing demos of the new music, he finally found what he was looking for. “I realized that the music that had come out of the tour was very, very different from anything on The Joshua Tree. U2 had toured, experienced different forms of American music, and out of that came this new music.” With a beginning, a middle and an end, Joanou had, if not a story line, at least the film’s dominant tone.
In the end, all agree that the yearlong process has had its rewards and surprises. “There’re very few bands who do what we do now: four people attempting to play the greatest rock ‘n’ roll concert of their lives every night,” says Bono. “There’s a lot at stake for us. It’s something almost sacred. It’s what we do best. We’ve never really been able to make records. We’re a live band, and that’s more important to me than the records. So if we blow this…”
Meaning that although the band members were once ambivalent about their motivations, U2 Rattle and Hum has now assumed an unexpected importance? “I told myself when I was making the film that it was the sort of thing I wouldn’t say,” Bono says sheepishly. “But yeah. It has.”