The Joshua Tree. The name itself is enormous, and perhaps that’s why U2 chose it for their seminal masterwork; like the national park, the album is grand, immense, beautiful… Something about it is utterly unworldly yet distinctly American—ironic, yes, for an Irish band. Likewise, something about it is transcendentally inspirational yet spiritually fatigued, which is fitting for a band that has always had utopian ambitions while obsessed with the sufferings of reality. Perhaps this is why The Joshua Tree still has such an enormous impact on modern rock. Sonically and thematically, it’s something of an enigma, something completely familiar but equally indefinable.
Or, The Joshua Tree might be such an influential album because the songs are good. Damn good. Even by U2 standards, the tracks on the band’s 1987 release are ridiculously superb. The album has often been criticized for being front-loaded with hits only to grow weaker as it progresses, but other bands would give their careers to write “Exit” or “Mothers of the Disappeared”. Indeed, the middle section of the album—“Bullet the Blue Sky,” “Running to Stand Still,” and “Red Hill Mining Town”—represents a better body of work than many bands ever achieve, and if it doesn’t measure up to the first three songs of this album—“Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “With or Without You”—it’s only because those three hits are among the greatest rock songs ever written. Taken as a whole, rather than diced into sections, The Joshua Tree is almost biblical in scope, an album that addresses with poignant beauty the gamut of human emotions, fears, and dreams.
U2: The Joshua Tree, a film originally released in 2000, explores the making of U2’s masterpiece. Using interviews of each of the band’s members, producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, and recording engineer Flood, the film examines the painstaking process of creating each track. Since the album is such a monument in rock history, it’s easy to assume that U2’s talents are so great that creating the album was just another day at work. In truth, however, the band struggled with each song, largely because their ambitions often outpaced their talents and knowledge. Indeed, if there’s one lesson to be gleaned from this film, it’s that the people outside the band who work on the album have as much influence on it as the band itself. If not for the production mastery of Lanois and the creative agitation of Eno, The Joshua Tree would have been a very different album.
At one point in the film, for example, Adam Clayton comments on the guitar intro to “Where the Streets Have No Name,” specifically it’s unusual 6/8 time signature. After the Edge presented the intro to the group, Clayton explains, they were not sure what to do with it because they didn’t possess the musical command to play in such an odd time. After the band struggled with the tune for endless hours, Eno actually devised a plan to “accidentally” erase the work the band had done on the song because he was tired of the frustrations and ill feelings it created. Finally, with some encouragement from Eno, the band found a way to segue the intro into a 4/4 song. Had Eno enacted his plan, however, the world would have no “Where the Streets Have No Name”.
U2: The Joshua Tree is full of such intriguing insights, particularly into how the band pieced the album together more than they “wrote” songs in a linear fashion. During the footage with the Edge, he plays different guitar parts recorded for the album, some of which were used, some merely saved for posterity’s sake. What emerges is a glimpse into his genius and unconventional guitar playing. The rhythm track for “Where the Streets Have No Name,” for instance, is little more than muted strings strummed in time with the beat. It is, in essence, more of a non-guitar part than an example of technical prowess, but many guitar players would never think to play in such a manner. Likewise, the outro to “With or Without You” is a masterpiece of minimalism, created by ringing the notes of the D chord and letting them echo against one another. In this sense, the Edge is more of a painter, creating colors and textures by adding layer upon layer.
Just as intriguing as the insights into the tracks on the album are the insights into each band member. Particularly revealing is the interaction between producer Lanois and Bono. Though Bono always appears to be the man in charge—the charismatic mastermind—around Lanois he is like a child next to his parent: nervous, awe-struck, and timid. During the footage of the iconic frontman, he often defers to Lanois for answers, and looks to him for approval when he fields a question himself. Not only is it refreshing to see that even the most captivating of people are human, the interviews exhibit the importance of choosing a producer who’s right for the desired sound and tone. Lanois is known for creating ethereal and open spaces (think of Dylan’s Time Out of Mind or Willie Nelson’s Teatro), and the atmosphere of The Joshua Tree is central to its appeal; little wonder, then, that Bono is still star-struck around the legendary producer.
By now, of course, this film is a bit dated, with much of the concert footage coming from the Popmart Tour. This is of little concern, though, since it was originally released thirteen years after the release of The Joshua Tree—long enough for the album’s influence to be seen in subsequent movements and generations. It would, however, be interesting to hear U2’s take on the impact of the album post-2000, when bands like Coldplay, Keane, and just about every other British band of the last five years aped the chiming guitars, bombastic choruses, and (almost embarrassingly) sincere lyrics The Joshua Tree made a staple of popular-alternative rock.
Then again, if you’re U2, what do you care about the imitators? The Joshua Tree is in the leagues of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, Who’s Next, and OK Computer; it’s an album that forever altered rock music and gave it a new vocabulary to explore. Because of this, U2: The Joshua Tree is a captivating watch, even if it’s not a groundbreaking film. Moreover, with a running time of only an hour, this documentary will leave you wanting more. In that regard, it’s perfectly in synch with its subject.