Like A Video: Angel Of Harlem (from Rattle And Hum)
October 25, 2013
[Ed. note: This is the 20th in a series of essays by the @U2 staff about U2-related visuals and videos. Some essays may be informational and educational, while others may be more personal.]
When I first volunteered to write this essay, I was almost certain that I would expound on my feelings about "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." It's one of my all-time favorite U2 songs, and the version on Rattle And Hum that incorporates a gospel choir is my absolute favorite live version. But as I watched (and re-watched) the film, I became less inclined to write about that footage and more inclined to detail some of the original songs U2 wrote for this project.
I also realized that I liked it more than the last time I saw it. A lot more. For whatever reason, I found myself still clinging to my initial reaction to the film -- now more than 20 years old -- which was that it was an awkward, uncomfortable set of interviews interspersed with some concert footage. But as I was watching it this time, I realized that it's not that way at all. In fact, it's mostly scenes from concert footage (which I love) that are separated by short interviews or quotes from the band. Sure, a few of them were a bit clumsy, but what I finally realized was of course they were weird in front of the camera! Megastardom was still very new to these young men and they were learning on the go. They weren't yet fully "game" for having a camera on them at all times. They hadn't yet learned to be the outwardly charismatic personalities fame practically demands.
But what really hit me today is the quality of the performance footage in Rattle And Hum, particularly the footage of the band performing in settings other than a concert stage. I like these scenes because it gives us a glimpse of the their offstage, "real world" personalities, a peek behind the curtain, if you will. The scene where the band is recording at Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn. is my favorite example of this, and not just for the footage of them playing "Angel Of Harlem." My favorite part of this portion of the film is what happens just after they start playing. Larry has an itch in his foot and has to stop playing, causing the rest of the ensemble to stop. This is the ensuing exchange:
Bono: (in a throaty, gritty voice) Larry. Mullen. Junior.
The rawness of this footage is what I like most. It serves as a nice reminder that these guys can be "regular guys," people who can laugh and tease and joke with their good friends. I especially appreciated seeing Larry smiling and laughing. (He looks very serious a good amount of the time these days!)
I also love this footage because we get to see the band playing together without the pyrotechnics of a full stage or a huge effects rig. Don't get me wrong: I think U2 puts on the best live show around, but we never get to see their music performed in a stripped down, "unplugged" manner with all four band members. The performance of "Angel Of Harlem" that we see in the film is not the recording that made it onto the album, and I'm perfectly OK with that. There is a bit of mixing on the movie footage, but compared to a U2's formal studio work, it's fairly minimal. Essentially, the film version was a live take, and the audio likely was cleaned up expressly for the film.
For U2, the Rattle And Hum project was more than a documentary/concert film hybrid. They also wanted to experience America and American music. They wanted a history lesson. And what better way for an Irish rock band to learn about American rock 'n' roll than to record a few songs in the in the same place as some of rock's legendary figures. As the camera pans around the room, the significance of this studio is quite obvious: The walls are adorned with pictures of, among others, Elvis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash.
It feels good to have rediscovered the Rattle And Hum film. I appreciate it now infinitely more than I did even just five years ago. But much more than appreciation, I genuinely like the film, and that is due to footage like the "Angel Of Harlem" studio session. It is not a perfect documentary, nor is it a perfect concert film. But that's not really the point. It perfectly captures a band that just hit the big time and is now exploring a new kind of music, all while experiencing some significant growing pains. It's a testament to just how good U2 are that, despite the magnitude of what they were undertaking (making a documentary and performing all over the United States, learning how to be superstars on the fly), they still managed to write and record arguably some of their best songs ever ("Desire," "All I Want Is You") during this period.
© @U2/Endrinal, 2013.