Reviews

U2: Achtung Baby [DVD]

A half-dozen rock critics talk about a classic U2 album, arguing its "audacity" with precious little musical evidence.


U2

Achtung Baby

MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: A Classic Album Under Review
Label: Sexy Intellectual
UK Release Date: 2007-02-20
US Release Date: 2007-02-20
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

Rockumentaries -- O how we wonder if you will be as silly as This is Spinal Tap! And so it is that this now-venerable genre has been taken over by the over-earnest rock critics, the squads of proto-Greil Marcuses for whom the rock business is more akin to the Modern Language Association Convention than it is to, well, . . . fun.

Achtung Baby, A Classic Album Under Review is one of these new-generation rockumentaries -- a single-minded and vaguely dorky rock-critics'-view of a single adored album. What makes it considerably more interesting than, say, the same treatment given to Astral Weeks or Are You Experienced?, though, is the fact that Achtung Baby is not an obvious topic for adulation. A pivotal, transitional record in the career of a major band, AB actually spurs a more interesting discussion than is typical. Still, when a talking-head rock critic discusses the album's title by batting about "the play of these two sets of associations", you know you are dealing a film where the thoughts of some serious English majors are going to outweigh actual rocking in screen time.

The documentary begins with a quick history of U2 as a band. The set up is this: U2 became a big hand in the 1980s, so big that they stole the show at 1985's Live Aid concert and were named by Rolling Stone "The Band of the '80s". But that wasn't all. After Bob Dylan met lead singer Bono and told him that the band needed to know where it was coming from if it was to continue, U2 began a sincere exploration of the America's rock roots -- making the colossally successful album The Joshua Tree (198?) and growing to superstar status. Their next record, Rattle and Hum, however, hit a false note for many. Traveling across the US on a tour, playing in African-American churches and trying -- perhaps too hard -- to connect to their rockin' soul roots. One of the critics puts it simply: "It just came across as epically pompous." And so, on the last night of that tour, before a hometown Irish audience on New Year's Eve 1989, the band announced that it was regrouping.

And so it was that U2 chose to turn its gaze from the west and America back to the east -- toward the Berlin wall. Not only was the wall falling at that very moment, but that is also the place where David Bowie and Brian Eno had recorded a series of classic '70s records such as Heroes. U2 had worked with Eno (as well as Danial Lanois) as a producer on Joshua Tree, but here the band was trying to rebel against its recently self-serious reputation. Incorporating elements of 1990's "Manchester sound" and hewing to a tone of irony and show rather than rootsy sincerity, AB promised to be more playful and more self-conscious than any U2 record prior.

"On Achtung Baby, Bono has become a master of masks and a master of exploring different personas." This is the kind of conversation that may or may not interest you. But this kind of conversation dominates A Classic Album Under Review. While the critics discuss the first single, "The Fly" at length, only a small portions of the song is used in the film. Again -- the point is the conversation about the music and not the music.

But that is not necessarily a bad thing. The detailed discussion of the songs on AB is deeply illuminating. The critics pick apart the references contained in the opening song, "Zoo Station", for example, noting that the Zoo Station stop on the Berlin subway is on the line named "U2" and that other specified stops on the line relate to the biography and methods of the band. They trace New Testament references through the lyrics -- the story of Herod and Salome in "Mysterious Ways" -- and analyze the influence of crooners on Bono's shifting vocal style. They trace themes of betrayal and doubt through the album's cycle of tracks -- considering matters of sequencing and juxtaposition as well as individual meaning.

The critics do less well on screen when they are simply spouting subjectively. Their argument, for example, that "One" is U2's greatest song seems oddly thin. The problem isn't that they are dead wrong but rather that the documentary doesn't -- can't? -- do all that much to back up what is, after all, purely a matter of feeling. When they discuss the "audacity" of Achtung Baby, for example, they can talk about the lyrics -- and in fact they blow up the lyrics to fill the screen in written form -- and about the break-up of The Edge's marriage, but they can't really capture what may have been audacious about the sum total of the music and the lyrics. There's so little actual performance in the film that we're always asked to take these matters of aesthetics on critical faith.

The palette of this documentary simply consists of too few colors: talking heads and music videos, and little else. There are no interviews with the artists and very little news footage or other elements of verisimilitude. It is a British production, with British, American, Irish critics weighing in. But even in the talking head portions, the camera angles and settings don’t vary. For the most part, there are just words; that is, it could have as easily been a book.

This lack is particularly painful at the end of the documentary, when the critics are discussion how the Zoo TV tour was "about spectacle" and was the antithesis of "rock classicism". Hey -- Let us see some of it! you want to shout. But maybe the rights to that material were not available? Something has to explain the nearly defiant plainness of the production.

The DVD contains a few extras, but not much -- an interactive quiz on the band, and extended versions of the interviews that already make up the bulk of the documentary. However you slice it, the material is barebones.

The main fact with this "Classic Album Under Review" is that it should not be confused with the album-based documentary series "Classic Albums", where the artists themselves pick apart their work, track by track, at a mixing board. The critical insights of the artists themselves are not necessarily more true, but they are tied up with the real stories of how the albums were made and they are backed up by the immediate experience of the music itself. Achtung Baby, A Classic Album Under Review is less a peek under the hood than it is a conversation among automotive snobs while standing in the showroom.

It's interesting, if you're into that kind of thing, but imagine the alternative: just listening to Achtung Baby itself. A much more edifying hour with the real thing.

6

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image