"We chose the name U2 to be ambiguous, to stay away from categorization."
Rattle and Reminisce: Critics Revisit Their Reviews 25 Years Later
October 17, 2013
When bands reach a certain benchmark of fame, for better or worse it becomes customary to try to bring them down a notch. With the advent of social media, fans have the upper hand on spreading buzz -- good or bad -- and that trend doesn't show signs of slowing.
But before we were all drivers on the information superhighway, the voices that were primarily heard were those of journalists. The professional power of the pen is still evident today, but the strength of reporters' words (the ones who are left, at least) sometimes gets diluted by the noise of the masses.
In 1988, that wasn't the case.
U2 had been on the cover of Time magazine as "Rock's Hottest Ticket" and were enjoying the phenomenal success of their album, The Joshua Tree. As they toured that album, they enlisted young director Phil Joanou to accompany them on the road and create a documentary of their experience. Fans were understandably excited, preparing themselves for something along the lines of 1965's Don't Look Back, which followed Bob Dylan on a tour of England, or 1970's riveting Gimme Shelter, which chronicled the last weeks of a Rolling Stones U.S. tour.
What they got was something completely different, and their audience was split on the difference: The film was either a stunning work of art or a pretentious, self-serving snapshot of stardom.
Looking back on this landmark anniversary, our staff wondered if any of the critics who disliked the movie so much back then had a change of heart all these years later, so I set out to find them.
In many cases, the trail went cold after journalists left their long-time publications, or the publications went away altogether. In other cases, some chose not to respond or didn't want to participate.
Thankfully, I was able to catch up with a few of them, who provided gracious answers to the big question: Do you stand by your original review?
Mike Boehm, a Los Angeles Times arts reporter who formerly covered pop music for the same publication, had this to say:
"Great rock music lives in that grit and bustle, and it thrives on the specific. Rock greatness is Van Morrison singing about a day at a swimming hole ("And It Stoned Me") and from the details of his story weaving a vision of the broader qualities of fellowship and generosity of spirit.
It's the Rolling Stones introducing you to a gin-soaked barroom queen in Memphis ("Honky Tonk Women") or Neil Young walking you through a violent rite of passage in "Powderfinger," molding setting, plot and character into a whole that takes on tragic, mythic proportions.
Along with the passion and power that U2 certainly possesses, great rock 'n' roll must encompass laughter and fun and whimsy and imagination -- qualities that U2 simply has not shown. These are crippling deficiencies."
Read his full article here.
"My views about the album and film have not changed since the 1988 article ran.
I think U2 subsequently took a step in the right direction when it included humor in its [Zoo TV] stage shows for Achtung Baby.
However, as far as I could tell, the elements of humor, storytelling and down-to-earth detail that I criticized in 1988 as crucial missing elements in U2’s songwriting never did materialize.
I’ve been off the pop music beat since fall, 1999, so I’m not in a position to give any kind of educated opinion about U2’s artistic growth since then.
My overall impression of U2 continues to be that while it has impressive strengths and its success is completely understandable and deserved, there are some missing dimensions that are important enough to disqualify it from the top rank of rock’s greatest bands."
Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer film critic of 25 years, said this:
"Apart from permitting U2 fans to gaze upon their rough-hewn idols, there is no obvious point of this movie.
Director Phil Joanou reveres the members of the Irish band to the point of unintentional hilarity. (Rob Reiner and company couldn't do a Spinal Tap on this; Rattle and Hum is already a parody.) Dogging the band's heels like a faithful puppy, Joanou does not dare to ask about U2's politically engaged songs, such as "Pride" (about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) and ''Sunday Bloody Sunday" (about the Troubles in Northern Ireland). The movie is afraid to challenge the authority of these politically anti- authoritarian musicians.
Rattle and Hum, which means to be a portrait of the band often called rock's social conscience, is the film equivalent of a centerfold pinup."
Read her full review here.
"Movie reviewing is of a moment, Posterity is that moment plus time. I would both stand by the review and append this postscript:
I was one of many in the "love the music, hate the vanity of the project" camp. In 1987, in the context of concert movies such as Stop Making Sense, Rattle and Hum felt disjointed. Seeing the band visit the shrines and landmarks of American pop and blues felt like an overreach for a young band. I watched about 30 minutes of the film on a friend's bootleg copy sometime in the early 2000s. Bono and The Edge looked so young and fresh, the music was, as always, thrilling. At that moment, the movie struck me like the image of a young Bill Clinton shaking JFK's hand at the White House. That is to say, prophetic."
Thanks to Mr. Boehm and Ms. Rickey for their honest, thoughtful responses.
Though I see where each of them were coming from, I'll have to admit, I was in the camp that liked the film in the 80s, and I still do. In fact, Steve Morse of The Boston Globe pretty much summed it up for me in his review back then:
"Quite honestly, anyone who lives and breathes music should see this film. So should those nay-sayers who think that rock is little more than decadent mindlessness. There is a dignity to this tour documentary that makes it a human drama as much as a musical one."
I suppose the fact we're all still talking about it 25 years on has to say something.
© @U2, 2013.