U2 on film: the revolution will be in three dimensions

For years, Bono has been promising to "wipe your tears away." Now he can - virtually.

It may not yet be the last word in concert films, but "U2 3D" certainly jump-starts a credible conversation: can 21-century technology present a concert experience even better than the real thing?

The concert junkie inside me cried blasphemy at the thought, referencing the music fan's mantra that no entertainment is greater than a live show. Since its debut this year, however, this seminal film has chipped small cracks in that philosophy, coming as close as possible to overthrowing the real deal.

Hailed as "the first ever live-action digital 3-D film," the content of U2 3D is nothing new. Any fan who has seen previous concerts (live or filmed) will recognize the structure of the show, as well as the antics of Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. And yet - as with U2's music - the soul of the movie may be familiar, but the presentation is utterly unique.

Filmed over numerous nights during the Vertigo 2006 tour in South America, U2 3D is the first-ever music film to capture the size of the spectacle with the added depth of a third dimension (and a really big screen). The camera serves as the best seat in the house, drifting over the crowd and moving around the stage as the proverbial fifth band member. 

The use of 3D here is not simply a gimmick. Although the third-dimensional effects are most noticeable when letters rain on the audience during "The Fly" (appropriately enough, a song about overstimulation) or throughout the animated illustrations of "Yahweh," they are at their most powerful when the band is at its most aggressive and charismatic. When Bono reaches for bassist Clayton on one of the stage's crowd-piercing tentacles during "Love and Peace"-a hundred outstretched arms between them in the audience-you can feel the distance. Yet when Bono belts out the operatic part of the late Luciano Pavarotti in "Miss Sarajevo," or reaches out to wipe away your tears in "Sunday Bloody Sunday," you forget others are watching with you. No band can balance spectacle and intimacy like U2, and the 3D pulls each of these attributes to the extreme.

The greatest-hits set list is fashioned for mass appeal, although hard-core fans could probably trade some all-too-common performances ("With or Without You" has been included in almost every film) for deeper cuts ("Zoo Station" or "Love Is Blindness" would have worked fantastically in 3D). Still, with so many crowd favorites, complaints will be few (except, as the woman behind me in the theater exclaimed at film's end, "Where the hell is 'City of Blinding Lights'?").

Irish artist-turned-director Catherine Owens has served as U2's visual content director since the "Zoo TV" tour of the early '90s. In her first go-around at the helm, you can feel the influence on Owens' technique of the band's most successful director, Hamish Hamilton, who has perfected the energetic filming of U2 ever since "Elevation 2001." Every shot is paced and deliberate - multiple cameras were needed to film each 3D shot (and quick cuts and zooms could conjure quite the headache) - resulting in some beautifully simple footage.

I saw U2's second show in Seattle in 2005, part of the same tour featured in this film. The $100 seats put me halfway up the upper bowl of the KeyArena; I had a full view of the stage, but was still quite a distance away. Three years later and I am still trying to recapture that energy. For one-tenth the cost (IMAX tickets are $11) and an impossible live view, U2 3D gave me the same post-concert high and day-after depression of a real show.

Like any substitute, however, the high wasn't as pure and the length not as long. Ultimately, the film provides everything except that indefinable quality of "being there." "U2 3D" could never take the place of seeing U2 in the flesh, but few things can. This film comes mighty close.

Philip Pirwitz is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory. [[In-content Ad]]