U23D, the new movie of the world’s favorite Irish band shot using the latest 3D technology, wouldn’t have happened without the American connection.
The crowd gathering outside Cineworld on a freezing cold night in February is eagerly awaiting the arrival of U2 who chose their home town of Dublin to premiere their new film U23D.
As they stroll up the red carpet, sporting 3D specs, the one time Bono’s glasses are not out of place, they remain as unaffected and amiable as they were as punk rockers back in 1975 when they would drink in a little dockside pub called the Clarence – the only pub that would serve Bono’s pal Gavin Friday whose kilts, Doc Martin’s and studded dog collars managed to get them barred from just about every other pub in Dublin.
“The elderly barmaid Agnes was stern but she took pity on us and would serve us a pint so long as we sat in the snug out of sight of the other drinkers,” says Bono, who liked the Clarence so much that years later, he bought it and refurbished it into one of Dublin’s most stylish hotels.
Friday, who gets a “creative consultant” credit on the film, is one of several friends from that era that Bono and the band have stayed close to, and worked with over the years.
“There is an overriding aspect which is [U2’s] creative generosity,” says Bono’s friend, long-time collaborator, video artist, and director of the film, Catherine Owens. It was Owens who introduced the band to the concept of 3D and to John Modell, whose father Art Modell owned the Baltimore Ravens. (“This film would never have happened were it not for a great American football team, the Baltimore Ravens, Art Modell, and one of our oldest friends, Catherine Owens,” Bono tells me.)
Bono and Owens go back almost 30 years to when she fronted the all-girl punk band the Boy Scoutz. “I recall a night many years ago lying in O’Connell Street being questioned by the Garda Síochána,” Bono says, smiling. In fact, Owens said he and she were introduced by The Edge when she was waiting for a cab on O’Connell Street.
“We always kept in touch. They would visit me in Belfast where I was studying art. When they were doing Unforgettable Fire they asked me to do a set of wall murals.”
Owens, who traded in punk rock for a career as an artist, went on to create visuals for U2’s Popmart and Elevation tours. She was the band’s visual content director on the “ZooTV,” “Pop Mart,” “Elevation” and “Vertigo” tours, and directed the band’s video Original of the Species.
“I’ve always loved experimental video work and with Edge and Larry there’s a great support network. The film [U23D] is about a group of people who are saying it’s actually okay to be together,” she says.
So where did the inspiration come from to shoot the biggest band in the world using a revolutionary cinematic medium?
“Pete Shapiro came to me with the idea to incorporate 3D into a live show,” said Owens, who immediately saw the potential and lobbied the band to take a chance on the new technology.
The Shapiro/Modell team also had access to the world’s best 3D cameramen and cinematographers, and Modell was in a position to finance the adventure since his dad’s sale of the Baltimore Ravens had netted a cool $600 million.
After shooting a single-camera test during an early “Vertigo” tour concert at Anaheim Pond, 3ality ultimately received the thumbs up from U2 to travel and shoot on the road with the band in South America, with Owens as director.
“I felt that if we were going to do this right we had to do it in South America, since the band’s presence after an eight year hiatus from the continent was certain to draw vibrant and enthusiastic crowds,” Bono said.
Why Buenos Aries? I ask.
“Ireland and Argentina have so much in common, not just in terms of personalities but our passion and our shared history. Argentina has had its difficult political past, as has Ireland. But our differences based on our past should not prevent us from living a better future. We share much in common. The only difference is they can dance,” he jokes.
On a more serious note, he adds, “I wanted to go somewhere magical with the creation of U23D, to intensify the feelings evoked at our live concerts, and the South American audiences are just great.”
And “magical” it is. Seamlessly edited, and enhanced with multichannel surround sound, the film also features footage of the band’s tour in Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Santiago as well as Buenos Aries, to create a unique audiovisual experience. The film so vividly captures the experience of being at a live concert with 80,000 fans, that the result, to quote a U2 song not featured in the movie, is “even better than the real thing.”
As Bono leads U2 through their greatest hits, swooping cameras shoot the band from a range of angles, following the singer as he struts across the vast set with its long, winding catwalk, and potently using overhead shots to show Larry Mullen at his drum kit from a perspective never seen before.
“It has taken me 20 years to get photographers to make me look this tall. You thought our heads were big – wait till we get to the Imax,” Bono jokes. Although he admits, “Seeing the band in all their glory on the big screen can be painful. You see everything in the raw – you can’t cover the cracks.” While Adam Clayton tells me, “It’s actually much nicer to be in the audience knowing that you don’t have to jump around for an hour-and-a-half – you just have to sit there.”
There are moments in the film when Bono reaches his hand out so close that you imagine you could shake it, or when he looks likely to prod you in the eye with a mic stand. At times the neck of Adam Clayton’s guitar seems to jut out of the screen. When on-screen audience members climb onto each other’s shoulders, you instinctively move your head for a better view. And there’s a remarkable sense of intimacy, particularly on the slower tracks (“One,” “Pride,” “Miss Sarajevo,” and “With or Without You”), and a strong temptation to go dancing in the aisles when the band turns up the heat on “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Beautiful Day,” “New Year’s Day” and “Vertigo.”
“We’re very happy to be exposed in this film. We’ve always tried to do something new with our live shows. We were the first to build our stages out into the crowd. We’re always pushing innovation,” Bono says.
His beautiful wife Ali is waiting quietly in a corner of the cinema prior to the screening. I ask her if she’s seen the film yet. “No, I haven’t, but I don’t think it’s as good as hanging out with the real thing,” replies the busy mum of four.
“There’s no place like home,” Bono says of Dublin, where he is not treated like a rock star. “I’m just Dad who does the school run.” He’s proud of Ireland’s role when it comes to humanitarian issues. “In regards to Africa, Ireland is in a leadership role. Our NGOs are the best in the world. Irish people, and especially Irish women, have a huge level of understanding and a huge say in what sort of help is given out.
“In my case that’s even more evident as not only does my dear wife wear the trousers in that regard, now she also makes them,” he said referring to Ali’s socially conscious line of clothing.
He told me that he’s too busy being a singer, songwriter and political activist when I ask if he’d ever quit the day job to contemplate being an actor.
“I know Mick Jagger played the outlaw Ned Kelly. I’m in a band. I’m doing enough extracurricular activity to keep me going,” he says.
He and the band have come to the premiere straight from the studio where they were recording their new album. “We have to do something really extraordinary to get out of bed these days. Nobody wants to be in a band just for the sake of being in a band. The new album is very uncompromising, very radical, you young people better watch out now. Who needs another U2 album unless it is a really great piece of rock ‘n’ roll?”
Meanwhile, Art Modell, who not only loves U2 but believed they were the right band to pioneer the use of 3D, summed up U23D: “In years to come Bono’s grandchildren will be able to experience his wonderful music through this technology, as if they were at the concert. What greater gift could he give them?”