Capturing the Reel U2: The Music Is the Message

Youthful movie director Phil Joanou needed to make sure his laminated pass was clearly visible backstage last weekend at U2’s concert at McNichols Arena here.

Joanou--whose boyish good looks make him appear much younger than his 25 years--was repeatedly eyed by security guards as he raced back and forth from the stage to a tiny control booth where seven monitors showed what was being captured on film.

Maybe the slender, long-haired kid was some kind of MTV contest winner, speculated one guard who had stopped Joanou to inspect his pass.

Joanou certainly exuded the enthusiasm of a hard-core U2 fan. A Steven Spielberg protege, Joanou has directed two episodes of TV’s “Amazing Stories” and earned some good notices for his first film, the teen-oriented “Three O’Clock High.”


The night before the first of the band’s two concerts, Joanou smiled over dinner at Michael Hamlyn, producer of the documentary film of U2 that Joanou is directing. “I was so excited when I heard about this film, I would have directed it for free,” Joanou said.

That eagerness is one reason U2 picked Joanou, a Los Angeles resident who grew up in La Canada, to direct the film, according to the group’s manager, Paul McGuinness.

“The band had already interviewed 9 or 10 potential directors before they met Joanou,” McGuinness said. “But as soon as they started talking to him, it was clear that he was going to be the one. He’s a master technician . . . who is also the same age as the band and is obsessed by music.”

Added Joanou: “It was almost spooky. I remember giving a cassette of (U2’s) ‘Joshua Tree’ album soon after it came out to a production designer--a friend that I talk to all the time about movies. I said: ‘Go home and listen to this album, because these guys represent the kind of movies I want to be making . . . the content, the commitment, the energy, the point of view that is in that album.’


“So when I heard U2 was going to make a movie, I flew to Hartford to see them--even paid my own way. I don’t know what other (directors) said to them, but there was a real air of seriousness on their part about doing this film right.

“Bono (Hewson, the lead singer) asked: ‘If you were going to direct the U2 movie, what kind of a film would you make?’ I looked at him and said: ‘What kind of a film do you want to make?’

“To me, it was essential that the film have all the purity and power of their music.”

That purity has caused Joanou some anxious moments.

Sitting in the near-empty arena as U2 finished its sound check, Joanou propped both feet on a seat back and spoke about the eight weeks he has spent on the road with U2. He has been studying the band on stage so he will know how to best shoot the show here and pick up documentary footage off stage.

Joanou said he loves the offstage footage he’s got so far, including scenes of the band sitting in with a gospel choir in New York on a version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and recording new material at the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis, where Elvis Presley got his start.

But he worries he’s not getting enough footage. He went a week without shooting a single frame.

“The thing they keep stressing is that this should be a film about music . . . not about them,” he said. “You won’t see Bono or (guitarist) Edge getting in or out of cars or eating at home, or even talking about their music. They refuse to stage anything. . . .


“I asked them, for instance, if maybe they would come back out and do a song again if we didn’t get it very well during the show and they said no. They want it to be spontaneous, which makes things a bit tense. I’m not saying they are not giving me enough cooperation to make the movie, but we’re just on the edge.”

Even before U2 left Dublin last April to begin a world tour, the Irish quartet was widely regarded as the most acclaimed rock band of the ‘80s. More than any other group to hit America from across the Atlantic in over a decade, U2 reflected the musical command and sociological force to stand alongside the great bands of the ‘60s.

When U2 left home in April, the challenge was whether the band could also achieve the massive, broadly based popularity of such groups as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who. Of the bands that surfaced since the punk revolution of 1976, only perhaps the Clash, the Sex Pistols and the Police also made a serious bid for classic rock standing.And each fell short in one or more of the three key areas: huge commercial success, artistic merit and social impact.

Seven months later, as U2 moves through the final leg of its U.S. concert swing, there is little question that the band has joined the list of all-time great bands.

“The Joshua Tree” is arguably the runaway leader for album-of-the-year honors--a richly crafted, multifaceted look at man’s spiritual and political state--and the band has attracted a mass following.

“The Joshua Tree” has sold almost 11 million copies worldwide (more than 5 million in the U.S.) and has spun off two No. 1 singles: “With or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” In addition, more than 2 million fans have seen the band on this tour and 142,000 are expected for its shows Tuesday and Wednesday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

In the midst of the celebration, however, some U2 fans have begun to wonder if the band isn’t moving too fast.

Isn’t there a danger of overexposure by moving up from 15,000-seat arenas to stadiums that hold 50,000 and more so early in the career of a group whose members are still in their 20s? And isn’t there even more risk of overexposure by putting U2 in movie theaters around the world?


Larry Mullen, the band’s drummer, nodded when the question of overexposure was brought up.

“We are all concerned about that,” he said, standing backstage after the sound check. “We didn’t want to play stadiums (in the U.S.), but there was such a demand for tickets that people were being forced to pay high scalper prices if they wanted to see us.

“The alternative was to play (multiple) nights in every city, and that would mean we would have to be on the road for another year.”

About the film, he added: “If we do it right, I see the film as helping people better understand what U2 is all about. I sometimes worry when people start about the politics or the spiritual themes or the success or the personalities in the band. It’s important--especially now, when there is so much attention on us--to keep the attention on the music.

“That’s why the movie isn’t about the people in U2. . . . It’s not a glorification of the individuals in the band. It’s about the music. I think the film will actually help focus attention away from all the side issues and back on the music.”

In a separate interview, Paul McGuinness, a former film technician who began managing U2 before the band was signed by Island Records in 1980, said the theme of the film is partly designed to update “Under the Blood Red Sky,” a widely praised 1983 video of a U2 concert at Red Rocks Amphitheater just outside Denver.

“That video was extraordinarily successful, but is so old now that it is almost embarrassing,” he said. “The band is so much better and the material is so much better now, so we want to put the current U2 on film.

“It’s also an interesting time in the band’s career--a time when they are all exploring American music, like going to Sun Studios--and I hope that shows up in the film. We won’t just be showing what happens on stage.”

The movie--which will be divided roughly into two-thirds concert footage and one-third documentary--was originally going to be titled “U2 in the Americas,” but plans for a concert in Argentina were dropped after it was learned that it would cost $1.2 million to stage a show there.

Even without heading to South America, the budget on the film is $5 million, which is being put up by the band. McGuinness said the group rejected offers from various studios to finance the film to better guarantee control over the project. He, however, expects to release the film through a major distributor next summer.

To coincide with the movie, the band will also release a double album, produced by Jimmy Iovine. It will include music from the movie and additional new material.

As U2 was going through a forceful rendition of “In God’s Country,” due to be released as the next single from “The Joshua Tree,” Joanou sat in a director’s chair in the small control booth backstage, speaking feverishly into a headset.

“Get in tighter on Bono, camera five . . . tighter, " he shouted, staring at a monitor in front of him. “Great shot, camera six. Hold it right there. . . . Camera three, where are you? Are you reloading?”

Unlike some movie-related concerts--including “Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll!"--the shows here weren’t stopped so that Joanou could reload the cameras or get a second chance at the action. His only cracks at the music are these two shows in Denver and possibly two more in Arizona, at the end of the tour next month.

After 90 minutes of staring at the monitors and yelling instructions to the film crews, Joanou felt that the first night had given him half of what he needed from the two Denver shows. Which was good, he said, because things would probably work more smoothly the second night here. Still, he seemed drained.

Joanou--who lists “Gimme Shelter,” “The Last Waltz” and “Stop Making Sense” as his favorite rock films--paused to catch his breath before going to meet with the band.

“Doing it the way they want to makes my job far more difficult, but if they did restage things just for the movie or set up for two days in an empty arena, I wouldn’t get what U2 does so well, which is the spontaneity,” he said.

“Bono acts on impulses and so does the rest of the band. They’ve got the courage on stage to just go for it, and I think that’s what they’re demanding of us. That’s exciting to me because it makes what we’re doing real.”