Tuesday, June 22, 2010

U2 360° At The Rose Bowl [Blu-Ray review]

* Released June 3rd
Timed to coincide with the resumption earlier this month of the second North American leg of their juggernaut U2 360° Tour, U2 360° At The Rose Bowl will have to act as a temporary satisfier for those of us on this continent who are left holding tickets for their postponed shows (until next year) after lead singer Bono's recent unexpected back surgery. Loathe as I am to trot out a cliched "but it's the next best thing to being there" line, this new DVD/Blu-Ray release does do a standout job in capturing the Irish band's ambitious live production, which is more a credit to U2's brilliant show than any superlative directing, editing, or fancy camera shots.
The concert, performed on October 25th of last year, was broadcast live on YouTube, the first time the site has streamed a full-length live performance. The show had over 10 million views in just its first week, which included myself. I had seen the band live and close-up just five weeks earlier (read my review here), but still found new things to appreciate, and I was particularly impressed with YouTube's audio and especially the video quality. Cut to seven months later and I found myself wondering how significantly the YouTube version would differ from the new DVD/Blu-Ray version. Some shots and stage dialogue I recognized, but for the most part it felt like I was watching a completely new show. While I've got a pretty solid video and audio setup with my iMac, the added "oomph" from experiencing the show again with the sharp Blu-Ray picture and a good set of speakers is substantial.
Director Tom Krueger, who worked as a cinematographer on the band's stunning (and overlooked) U2 3D film, does have a lot to work with here, considering there were 27 HD cameras used for this shoot and, well, it's only the biggest rock touring production ever. High marks to Krueger for almost completely excluding pointless close-up shots of audience members, which rarely add anything to a live video. Remarkably, I only counted three such shots. For the most part, the enormity of the production translates comfortably, especially during "City Of Blinding Lights". Some well-timed aerial shots from cranes and helicopters provide impressive visuals of the band playing to their biggest crowd on the tour and their biggest U.S. crowd ever, at 96,000 (also a Rose Bowl record...the band broke numerous attendance records due to the unique setup of the stage, which, even with it's massive size, still allowed them to increase a venue's capacity by an average of 20%). The jarring quick edits that have marred some recent U2 home video releases are thankfully not overdone this time around.
The Pasadena, California show finds the band on the second-last date of their 2009 tour, and they are clearly a well-oiled machine at this point. The setlist, clocking in at a little over two hours, is a nice balance of strong new material, U2 staples, and underplayed gems (such as "In A Little While" and "Ultraviolet", with the latter marking one of the high points of the show). Curiously, the show's opening track, "Breathe", is omitted from the main program and included as an extra.
Once again, U2 pushes the envelope as far as electrifying stage productions, an especially gutsy move given the relatively poor reception (commercially and critically) that their last huge live presentation, 1997-98's PopMart Tour, received. The stage, which was conceived to be so big that it almost becomes part of the stadium, provides clean, open sightlines and successfully facilitates the band's performance, rather than overwhelming it. During some numbers, the massive structure (and its amazing, shapeshifting video screen) are actually used quite sparingly and the show far from suffers. As a matter of fact, some of the most memorable and genuine moments of the concert occur during scaled down acoustic versions of "Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of" and "Stay", as well as another great sequence where the entire band eschews the stage's expanse and gathers tightly around the drum riser during "Where The Streets Have No Name".
This is the band's first Blu-Ray release and is being sold in a number of formats, most notably the super deluxe boxset (only $160 at Amazon.ca!).
Blu-Ray extras: overall, the extra/bonus content is quite underwhelming, to be honest. There's an insightful documentary titled Squaring The Circle about the creative process behind the show, but other than that and the inclusion of some of the official music videos from their last album that didn't get much airplay, there's little here that's noteworthy. Most of the tour clips here have already appeared at U2.com and are shot in relatively unimpressive looking standard definition...and are boring as hell (or perhaps you care to waste numerous minutes of your life on footage like watching a street artist in Milano who breaks into U2 songs and preaches his love for the band). The BD Live feature, which allows you to access additional content through your Blu-Ray player's online connection, shows some promise, but still needs some refinement. The video quality of the clips available (only six so far, although clearly more will be added when the tour resumes) isn't great, and neither is the content yet, with the selections limited to mindless 1-2 minute heavily edited clips, such as the one that will only interest the members of the Glasgow audience shown on screen singing along to "With Or Without You".
Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆