Super Bowl: U2 ad showcases a band, and director, on comeback path

The band as it took a break from making its new album in New York in December.
(Jennifer Altman)

When Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos take the field against the Seattle Seahawks in Sunday’s  Super Bowl, all eyes will be on whether one of the all-time greats can reclaim a title that has eluded him for seven years.

A similar narrative will play out during one of the game breaks, as U2 debuts a song off its first album in five years--"Invisible,” an anthemic, reflective look at lead singer Bono and the band leaving their native Ireland as young men. And the commercial has been directed by a film helmer with a little something to prove himself: Mark Romanek, the acclaimed director whose last movie more than three years ago, “Never Let Me Go,” was critically lauded but commercially disappointing.

Shot in black and white, the spot is a mini-concert video, featuring the band playing the new song (it will appear on its new album this spring) for a flashlight-waving crowd of more than 1,000. As Bono can be seen moving out into the crowd via a runway (and even crowd-surfing at one point), other notable details materialize -- a pendulum-like 360-degree microphone and a digital-light spectacle on a screen behind the band.

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The 60-second spot  (a video with the full track is also being fashioned) is part musical unveiling and part nonprofit bid. “Invisible” will be available for free download on iTunes for 24 hours after the spot, with Bank of America donating $1 to nonprofit (Red) for each download, up to $2 million.  (The spot is largely free of commercial messaging; a simple note at the end will ask consumers to help fight AIDS and detail the download information. Incidentally, Romanek is hardly the only name film director behind a Super Bowl spot: Tom Hooper and Carl Rinsch also directed commercials, for Jaguar and Kia, respectively.)

“Invisible” is inspired by Bono’s migration with the band to London as they tried to land a record deal nearly four decades ago, and the emotional consequences inherent to all hometown departures, its lyrics (“I’m more than you know”) suggesting a man on the cusp of reinvention.

Romanek, who by happenstance caught the band’s first-ever London pub gig as a student there in 1979 (more on him and his career separately), hoped the commercial could capture both the intimate narrative of the song and the scope of the band and the venue in which its latest work is debuting.

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“I wanted something rootsy and epic at the same time,” Romanek said in a postproduction facility in Santa Monica on Friday, where he and his staff were hunkered down editing the commercial and eventual video and making-of documentary short that will eventually follow. “It had to feel personal but also fit who U2 is, what the Super Bowl is.”

So one initial thought to shoot a Springsteen-like narrative video capturing the journey laid out in the song was scuttled, Romanek said, in favor of the big-event concert feel.

Though straightforward in its conception, the commercial wasn’t easy to shoot. A concert set was built in a hangar at the Santa Monica Airport, where 1,200 extras were brought in. Special industrial-powered flashlights were also imported from Hong Kong. Then for more than 10 hours each day, for three days, the band did take after take, the crowd roaring in appreciation each time, as more than a half-dozen cameras captured it all. The shoot was a big deal for the band too--after all, they had never played this new material in front of an audience.

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Bono and the boys, famously meticulous in their song preparation, had still been sending Romanek  new musical material after the shoot. The collaboration went both ways: A bit at the end in which the crowd sings a recurring line happened spontaneously at the video shoot but now looks to be incorporated into the track.

The finished product will be an object of fascination when it airs Sunday evening. If the U2 spot didn’t already stand out amid the litany of cutesy beer and car commercials, the black-and-white look will achieve the feat--Romanek calls that choice “a little punk slap” at the TV event’s consumerist extravagance.

“I want to expand this into a spectacle without shortchanging what I saw in 1979,” Romanek said, noting the high energy in the room even though they were just playing for a few dozen people in a pub.

After a mixed reception for its 2009 album “No Line on the Horizon,” U2 has already begun the process of re-establishing itself in the rock firmament, and even using Hollywood to do so. The group contributed “Ordinary Love,” the first new song in three years, to the “Mandela” soundtrack and has already scored an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe. A big Super Bowl commercial—done in a quintessentially U2-ish way, looks to be the next step.



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