Tuesday, May 19, 2009

On DVD: "U2: A Rock Crusade"

U2: A Rock Crusade is one of the better “unauthorized” music biography DVDs I’ve seen, though that’s not a terribly tough beauty pageant to win. It bests its competition primarily thanks to the copious amounts of archival footage available; unlike other unauthorized music discs that rely heavily on warmed-over recollections of hangers-on and “personal journeys” by singers in sound-alike bands, A Rock Crusade seems to have come from the auspices of a television news organization (perhaps the BBC, based on the narrator’s accent) and is able to populate its running time (an admittedly slim 47 minutes) entirely with footage and interviews of the subjects at hand.

The other frequent issue with these low-budget discs is that they can’t afford to license any of the music, relying on imitators and cover bands; it’s an issue that this doc cleverly dodges by stating, right at the beginning, that it’s not about the music anyway. It proclaims itself “the story of the other side of the band,” profiling the group’s (and particularly frontman Bono’s) work for numerous charity organizations and as ambassadors of peace and political causes. “It’s ridiculous to have this thing called celebrity,” Bono notes early in the film, “but it is currency, and I want to spend mine wisely.”

Much of this material is interesting, particularly to fans (which I count myself among). But there are big problems with this doc. First and foremost, it’s misnamed; the accurate title would be Bono: A Rock Crusade. The band is mentioned, of course, and seen a few times, but the film is all about Bono; The Edge has one quick sound bite (preceded by a somewhat condescending piece of narration congratulating him for proving that Bono isn’t the only member of the band in touch with issues, or some such nonsense), while Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. are never heard from. For most of its running time, we’re following Bono around the world and tracking his progress as an activist.

Organization is also an issue; there’s no real structure or chronology here, with random shifts in topic and frequent odd, random anecdotes. It skips around with little rhyme or reason; we get a brief overview of the band’s humanitarian efforts, then video of fans and celebs lining up for U2 concerts, then Bono visiting some dignitaries, and then the band at Sundance discussing their 3-D concert film. Some of the more abrupt transitions were presumably interrupted by commercials during a television airing (since they left in the bumper graphics and music), but it simply doesn’t have much of a flow.

The overwritten narration doesn’t help much either; it’s near-nonstop, filled with incessant chatter and frequent repetition of the same facts (and the necessity of finding video to cover all that talk causes the film’s editors to reuse the same archival footage, sometimes more than once). The voice-over is frequently hyperbolic as well; I’m as big a Bono fan as the next guy, but it’s a little much to call him one of the “great political orators” and compare him to MLK and JFK.

On the plus side, there is a wealth of interesting footage, and the sound bites are well-chosen and enlightening. Bono’s passion for these causes is clearly genuine, and his practical arguments are compelling and frequently persuasive. But as the film wears on, it piles on so much detail of his various meetings and awards that it becomes less a documentary and more of a travelogue. But what is not offered up is more than a dollop of information about how he (and the band) became so politically active. That’s what’s really missing here, and that’s what’s really needed.

As a U2 fan, I did take some pleasure in U2: A Rock Crusade; there was some information that was new to me, and it is enjoyable to see the leader a favorite group gallivanting with world leaders and pontificating on his pet projects. These unauthorized biography discs are often a chore to even sit through—this one more than sustains interest. However, there’s certainly nothing to hook non-fans; they’ll want to give this disc a pass.

"U2: A Rock Crusade" is currently available on DVD.

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