After all those hits and all those decades of playing together, U2 is still a tremendous live act — which makes the idea of a three-dimensional concert film seem sort of redundant. They’re so vibrant and theatrical in their performances and they sound so powerful, it’s as if they’re already reaching out and grabbing you.
Thankfully, directors Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington mostly resist the urge to get all gimmicky with the effects in “U2 3D.” Except for one moment during “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” when Bono stretches his hand toward you while singing the line, “Wipe your tears away,” it’s as if the band members aren’t even aware the cameras are there.
“U2 3D” boasts that it’s “the first-ever, live-action, digital 3-D film,” and while it does look crisp and clean and sharp, it’s just as notable for what it lacks: any self-indulgent interviews or seemingly spontaneous moments behind the scenes. It’s just an efficient hour and a half of solid music — you’re in, you’re out, you’re done.
The technique works best when it makes you feel as if you’re immersed in the audience, watching the group run through classics like “New Year’s Day,” “One” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” as well as newer songs like “Beautiful Day.” (The footage for “U2 3D” was shot at various concerts in Mexico and South America during the “Vertigo” tour, and it all blends seamlessly.) Crowd members in front of you thrust their hands in the air and make you feel like you’re one of them; one lucky girl finds a prime perch for herself on a guy’s shoulders and it partially blocks your view.
Some of the overhead shots are also extremely cool, especially during more upbeat hits like “Where the Streets Have No Name,” with the packed stadium audience bouncing up and down as one, undulating like an ocean wave that could suck you in at any moment. (Similar views of Larry Mullen Jr. aren’t quite so overwhelming — it’s just a guy surrounded by drums and cymbals, albeit an enormously talented guy.)
But there’s one song, “The Fly,” that the directors absolutely ruin by going overboard on the 3-D. (Owens has been the band’s visual content director for the past four tours; Pellington directed the video for “One.”) A rapid-fire succession of words and phrases that appear on giant screens behind the band also pops up on the movie screen, with the intention of leaping right out at us. It’s stream-of-consciousness stuff like “believe,” “lie,” “impossible,” “inevitable,” ostensibly all meant to be relevant and meaningful. The result is a distracting annoyance, which climaxes in a multicolored waterfall of jumbled letters.
By the time U2 gets to the next song, the melancholy, high-school make-out anthem “With or Without You,” you’re just sitting there praying that no one messes with it — and they don’t. It’s one that you’ve heard a million times, but it still sends chills, as does Adam Clayton’s bass line on “New Year’s Day” and The Edge’s distinctive guitar throughout.
When the music is allowed to speak for itself, it’s louder than any amplified 3-D effects. If you’re feeling truly ambitious, though — or you’re such a huge fan of Bono that you want to crawl up his nostrils — the movie is also being shown in some places in IMAX 3-D.