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'U2 Rattle and Hum' : (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 04, 1988

"U2 Rattle and Hum," the new rock documentary featuring what the promotional material claims to be "the world's most popular rock band," is an exercise in rock 'n' roll hagiography. It's a fanzine on celluloid.

The pictures, captured both onstage and off during the Irish band's "Joshua Tree" tour, are glossy, dreamy, pinup-able images of the group at work and play. They're the movie equivalent of the glamor portraits George Hurrell shot for the movie stars of the '40s. They're the sort of images you're supposed to leave lipstick marks on.

There's nothing wrong with a fan's approach, really. And it's sort of fun to watch modern rock figures deep in the process of mythologizing themselves. The movie, which was directed by Phil Joanou, begins with the band's rendition of the Beatles' "Helter Skelter" -- not a song that cries out for reinterpretation -- and immediately we see them taking measure of themselves, simultaneously paying homage and putting themselves "in the room" with the greats.

The essential strategy of the producers, who have worked on rock videos for the group, is to prompt comparison by proximity. They travel to Graceland, for example, where they view Elvis' grave and sit on Elvis' Harley and record in Elvis' studio; they swing up to a church in Harlem where they rock through a rendition of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" with the New Voices of Freedom, they work up a number with B.B. King, improvise (HA!) a version of "All Along the Watchtower," and drop references to songs by other groups, like the Rolling Stones, into their own.

These attempts to place themselves in the rock continuum are fairly strenuous and more than a little presumptuous. (It's a tad early for the band to be lobbying for admission to the pantheon.) We're not given much chance to get very close to the group, but they don't seem to be lads who hold a casual sense of themselves. This is particularly true of the band's lead singer, Bono. "Rattle and Hum" gives us tons o' Bono -- Bono in close-up, Bono in profile, Bono in action, Bono in repose. It's a virtual Bono-fest.

What's most fun to watch is how Bono styles himself as a teen dream, primping for the camera and twitching his leg Elvis-style, and a man of conscience. (Has there ever been an entertainment figure more in love with his upper arms than Bono?) Bono is rock's most pontifical performer; he loves to lecture.

Undeniably, the film has a stunning look, especially the color segments shot in Tempe, Ariz., by Jordan Cronenweth, but there's not much of a rationale for it. The only illuminating sequence is the one in which the band rehearses its number with B.B. King. There, at least, we're given a glimpse of the process of putting a song together for performance and a feel for how the group members interact.

The rest feels stagy and overproduced. Nowhere is there a sign of spontaneity or pleasure. Once, during a solo by The Edge on "Bullet the Blue Sky," the musical and visual textures become mesmerizingly sensual. For the most part, though, what "Rattle and Hum" manages to do is unspool hundreds and hundreds of feet of adoring film footage on the members of the band. And if you love looking at U2, then you're very likely to love this film.

But you had really better love looking at them.

U2 Rattle and Hum is rated PG-13

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