The release of Rattle and Hum in the theaters twenty-two years ago this week is the one time U2 came into my life that’s not covered in depth in my memoir I’m A Fan – How I married U2 into my life without going to the altar. How could I skip this event you ask? I don’t know. I think the jury is still out on why the movie has not made such a big impact on me. Maybe the reason is that Rattle and Hum was a reflection of the live side of the Joshua Tree tour and didn’t give me enough insight to the band. However, I do remember the anticipation that filled me as the cold November night wrapped around us as we walked across campus to the Englert movie theater to see the film. I had high hopes for the film and that changed shortly after I left the theater with my Rattle and Hum t-shirt and poster in hand. I was excited and wanted to see it again but not so eager to return immediately. Within days, the film had left campus.
My immediate reaction was mixed. I loved the up close and personal feeling that director Phil Joanou used to get us near the band as compared to my near the back of the hall seats I had a year earlier when U2 came to Iowa City. What I missed was the tangible content. I felt cheated in some respects. I wanted more banter and documentarian aspects to the film such as you see in Wilco’s I Am Trying To Break Your Heart from 2002. What I got was a concert tour interrupted by boredom as the band visited Graceland, much like Spinal Tap did four years previous. U2, I think, was trying to portray the impact of American music on them but it fell apart.
Where does the movie stand in the pantheon of music documentaries?
When you have The Last Waltz and Gimme Shelter as the precursors to your road movie, you have a tough row to hoe. Each of these movies gets it right. The Last Waltz is a reflection of The Band’s final show and the brilliant musicians showing up to pay tribute. U2 tries to work this in by getting B.B. King into the studio to cut some tracks. King is merely introduced to us as Bono rambles out the lyrics to When Love Comes To Town in front of him. What we are missing is them working together in the studio. Instead, we get them working on the stage before a show. It’s a nice narrative segue to a live show. Narrative is a very key component to these films and Gimme Shelter, like The Last Waltz, works how the end of the summer of love was not all that loving throughout the whole movie. The film hangs on the suspense of the band learning there was a murder while they performed at Altamont. Gimme Shelter builds steam as Maysles brothers intersperse live footage from Madison Square Garden, the pre-Altamont interviews and then the climatic show with the Hells Angels causing havoc. The Rolling Stones movie is just as reflective as The Band but Rattle and Hum fails to make that leap of faith of why America was so important to them as the Joshua Tree tour rolled on across the United States. The magic of the Rattle and Hum lives in the live footage but in comparison to the other two films, the interviews are where it’s lacking.
Now lies the rub. Stop Making Sense, the concert documentary by the Talking Heads, is above all the best concert captured on stage since The Last Waltz. What Jonathan Demme created was a masterpiece. Actually, the Talking Heads created the brilliant stage show; Jonathan decided to capture it from beginning to end. The brilliance is the storyline, which is in the songs lyrics, and carries the burden of the narrative. I believe this is why the Talking Heads need not be interviewed. Also, Stop Making Sense shows an art house band, ahead of its time, integrating video with still images as a way of selling the story. In comparison, the Joshua Tree Tour, captured in Rattle and Hum, was very stark. The stage at times was dimly lit, which created a tension felt by the audience. The use of black and white film, in Rattle and Hum, is what makes this movie work. The choice of grainy film gives the live footage depth with a haunting fear about how dangerous this band is live and the shaky back stage camera scenes a grittier personality, which will set it to equal to Stop Making Sense.
In closing, Rattle and Hum serves us as a reminder of what this band was like when they broke into America with the Joshua Tree. We cannot take that away from them. Some people are visual and this was the hook to get them on board. It’s a good hook. However, I wish there was more tooth of the band when the cameras were really not on them. The interviews are forced. What was it really like when they were relaxed or working? We didn’t get that. Instead, we got an extension of the Joshua Tree, which put the band in jeopardy as Bono stated at the Point Depot years later by stating that they had to go and dream it up all over again. The Joshua Tree tour, more specifically Rattle and Hum, became their burden and our favorite band almost became eaten by their own success. It’s too bad because I have always felt there was a better way to make a film about that American journey. Maybe they will by adding in a retrospective interview on the commemorative DVD. Or more importantly, the movie will be rereleased, like Stop Making Sense was for its 15 anniversary, and I can go back to see it for a second time in its brilliance and on the big screen.
Me at Sun Studios under the platinum disc for Rattle and Hum.