For the first 15 minutes, 'U2 Rattle and Hum' is a great rock 'n' roll movie.
Sure, the interview bit at the beginning is uncomfortably reminiscent of 'Spinal Tap,' but the recording of 'Desire' done in a cavernous Dublin studio looks and sounds great, as does the live concert performance that follows, with guitarist Edge blasting away on a dramatic chord pattern.
The harsh black and white cinematography matches U2's intense delivery naturally, and the sequence in a Harlem church with a chior singing 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For' is awesome. The singers overwhelm U2 vocalist Bono in an effect that was obviously planned.
Outside on a Harlem street, band members do look like tourists. But the black street musician they're listening to, Sterling Magee, is so good singing 'Freedom for My People' that U2 just becomes part of the casual audience, overshadowed by the music.
However, after this powerful start, the film crash-lands in Memphis as U2 goes to Sun studios and plays an 'original' song that's basically a rhythmically stunted variation of 'In the Midnight Hour.'
Right after this sequence, Edge tells the camera 'music can get so boring,' at least proving that U2 has a sense of humor.
But the film never recovers, veering between the boys-let-loose-in-the-candy-store kitsch of visiting Graceland, the 'In Search of Dylan' histrionics of 'All Along the Watchtower' and impromptu political science courses given by Bono on the codas and intros of songs.
These raps are often riveting in person but lose their impact when abstracted as part of a filmed performance, as if Bono's usually unerring sense of rock dramatics is thrown off by the film.
There is some great music the rest of the way, especially thecollaboration with B.B. King, 'When Love Comes To Town,' and the show-stopping renditions of 'Surrender' and 'Bullet the Blue Sky,' but the film ends up trivializing the live performance impact of this great band rather than documenting it.
This may well be a generic problem, because feature films have never been an effective medium for rock 'n' roll. The music's basic visual message is best delivered in short bursts, one of the reasons slickly produced videos have dominated rock's visual presentation.
Concert films simply don't work -- good live rock shows bristle with the kind of ambient energy that can only be appreciated in person.
With some hard-hearted editing this might have ended up being one of the finest concert films ever, but as a feature film 'Rattle and Hum' ends up a failure.