Okay, before a bunch of irate U2 fans send me a barrage of hate mail, let me just say that I am a fan of the band. I own many of their records, and feel that a few of their songs are even the best that modern music has ever heard (really, is 'One' not the greatest rock ballad of all time?). But even the biggest of bands sometime teeter a little too close to the edge of implosion, and U2's ill-fated 1989 big-screen extravaganza 'Rattle and Hum' may just be the most disappointing release in the band's entire 25-plus year career. Quite frankly, this movie sucks hard.
Of course, that opinion is purely subjective, though most reviews at the time of 'Rattle and Hum's release were also far from kind, even by the band's biggest critical supporters. And I am also biased in that I'm far more partial to U2's earlier, pre-"Joshua Tree" albums, as well as its '90s period of experimentation (including "Achtung Baby" and my favorite of their albums, the unfairly maligned "Pop"), than the multiple-Grammy-winner that led to 'Rattle and Hum.' But I'm sure the idea of documenting the band post-"Joshua Tree," when they were at the height of their U2-ness and with all the world their oyster, seemed like a good idea on paper. Unfortunately, not only had the magnitude of the group's critical and commercial success grown exponentially in the wake of the "Joshua Tree" hysteria, but so had their egos. And watching Bono's already over-inflated noggin blown-up to big-screen proportions was just too much for even this forgiving U2 fan to take.
Alas, 17-odd years later my opinion of 'Rattle and Hum' has changed little. I think the band and director Phil Joanou made a couple of key miscalculations that, while well-intentioned, render the film dramatically inert. The main problem is that there appeared to be little consensus on what 'Rattle and Hum' was supposed to be about. The band is frequently seen laughing during Joanou's attempts to interview them, snickering that the film is going to be a "musical journey" before a quick cut to the next song. None of the members, not even Bono, seem at ease in front of the camera when they are not performing, which makes most of the interview segments aloof and uncomfortable. Unfortunately, Joanou never refocuses the film away from the band's insolence -- even though the movie's PR blitz positioned the movie as a document of U2's embracing of "American roots music," we get little insight into that, either. Just endless montages of the band hanging out with B.B. King or singing with a church choir -- which is about as revealing as your average MTV music video.
The film's other liability rests squarely on the shoulders of Joanou. One can see why he might want to visually portray U2 as the messiahs of rock music at the time -- indeed, the were the biggest band in the world in 1988. But he stages all of the musical numbers not as if he's photographing a rock band but the second coming of Christ. It's pompous, self-congratulatory and does nothing to balance the band and especially Bono's relentless egotism with any humor (as the band would so successfully do on their own during the arch, ironic '90s Zoo TV and Popmart periods). Joanou's big crane shots and constant backlighting of the band members against giant spotlights starts to feel like so much empty posturing, especially when what has come before during the behind-the-scenes bits was so uninspired. And Joanou's approach doesn't even accurately represent the feeling of a U2 concert, which relies so much on interaction between band and audience. The crowd is all lost here in a blur of abstraction -- it's just Bono and The Edge standing on the mountaintop, singing to the grateful masses below in arty black and white.
So, what about the music? Even here 'Rattle and Hum' disappoints. While it was fine for the band to experiment with new musical avenues, in this case American gospel, R&B and the blues, the lack of humor again leaves most of the new songs less memorable than their best work. Aside from such singles as 'Desire' and the underrated show-closer 'All I Want is You,' few outside of diehard U2 fans can probably name most of the rest of the songs off the album. Not that any of 'Rattle and Hum' is really bad music, but how curious that the period U2 would choose to document on film was neither their most memorable as a concert spectacle nor as a studio album. As much as I really wanted to love 'Rattle and Hum,' it is probably the period of the band's career I'd least like to remember.
Okay, some bad news -- 'Rattle and Hum' is certainly the worst-looking HD DVD release from Paramount so far. It also may be the worst-looking HD DVD release yet from any studio (though I was probably more disappointed by the dismal 'Full Metal Jacket,' but that's because my expectations were higher). While a big part of the problem with 'Rattle and Hum' is due the dated source print (it sure could have used a bit of a sprucing up), this disc is also the first and so far only HD DVD or Blu-ray title to use the controversial MPEG4 compression codec. (Yes, I checked the disc itself via my player's tech info display -- its MPEG4 alright.) Skipping the techno babble explanation, suffice to say that the VC1 codec used on all other Paramount titles and that is also favored by fellow HD DVD-supporting studios is regarded by the industry as superior, capable of producing a far more stable and consistently high-quality, high-resolution image.
So, why is this transfer disappointing? While it is encoded in 1080p and does accurately represent the severely grainy, messy look of the film, the source material suffers unnecessarily from age and neglect. Dirt is frequent, as are blemishes, and even the vivid lighting of the color portions of the film look fuzzy and smeared. Video noise is frequent, noticeable and distracting, and add to that some pixelization, edge enhancement and inconsistent contrast and sharpness, and you have an image that hardly impresses. Detail is also predictably wanting, with only a few of the better black and white concert sequences boasting any true sense of depth. For example, the songs "Exit" and "Bad" look quite good, with rich, deep blacks and a nearly three-dimensional appearance. Sure, there is still some obvious grain, but the transfer during these numbers still looks good. Then, oddly, the big color concert sequences that make up most of the second half of the film look pretty crappy (aside from "With or Without You," which is a bit better than the rest). Shadow delineation is weak, colors unstable and overall the picture just looks more like a middling DVD release than great high-def.
I don't know how much of all this has to do with the use of the MPEG4 codec versus the spotty source print. But it is sad to say that the other documentary concert film I reviewed right before this one, Martin Scorsese's 'The Last Waltz,' is ten years older than 'Rattle and Hum' yet looks ten times better (okay, maybe not ten times, but the difference is considerable). Of course, in the end it ultimately doesn't matter where the problem lies, because a bad transfer is a bad transfer. Sadly, 'U2: Rattle and Hum' is just not a shining moment for the HD DVD format.
Thankfully, both the Dolby Digital-Plus (at 1.5mbps) and DTS 5.1 surround tracks are much better than the video transfer. On a purely aural level, cranking up 'U2: Rattle and Hum' during the big concert sequences is a lot of fun, with the kind of attention to fine detail that marks the best live music recordings.
Dynamic range is excellent. U2 have always been a great live band (as they should be after years of incessant touring), and the power and force in which the instrumentation and Bono's vocal delivery comes through on this disc is pretty kick-ass. This is first-rate stuff, with a sense of great presence and realism across the entire frequency range. Low bass also really chugs -- the percolating rhythms of 'Exit,' 'Pride' and 'Where the Streets Have No Name' handedly outshine their original recorded versions. I also was happily pleased at how well balanced Bono's vocals are in the mix -- too often on live recordings these days the singer's voice is place solo in the front center channel, which often sounds artificial and unreal.. Not here -- this mix sounds like one cohesive, organic wall of sound emanating from the front three channels, as if you are really right there in front of the stage.
Unfortunately, I was disappointed by the lack of surround engagement. There is little that emanates from the rear speakers -- by the time of the movie's triumphant close, "Pride (In the Name of Love)," I really wanted to hear that crowd sing-along roaring from my rear speakers. Instead, all I got was a minor bit of bleeding. Compare this soundtrack to 'The Last Waltz,' which even for a 1978 recording was nicely remixed with specific instruments isolated across all five channels. While the lack of surround activity during 'Rattle and Hum's interview and behind-the-scenes segments is not problematic, for the powerful concert numbers it is sorely missed.
Seeing as no prior video release of 'Rattle and Hum' included any extras, I guess it is no surprise this HD DVD is bare bones, too. Well, we do get the film's theatrical teaser (was there ever a full trailer released?) but that's it. Which is too bad, because given the mixed reaction to the film upon its original release and its continued middling reputation today even amongst the band's fans, a commentary track by the group or director Phil Joanou would have been revealing to say the least. Bummer.
Yes, I am a U2 fan, but no, I just cannot warm to 'Rattle and Hum.' Despite a few blistering concert sequences, the film lacks narrative drive and ultimately amounts to much sound and fury, signifying nothing. Alas, this HD DVD is also quite weak. The first (and last) Paramount title to utilize the controversial MPEG4 compression codec, it is ample proof that in the future, VC1 is instead the way to go. While the soundtrack is more satisfying than the poor picture quality, it is not enough to offset the dearth of extras and overall lack of value for money. This one is a tough sell even for the most passionate of U2 fans.