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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » U2: Rattle & Hum (HD DVD)
U2: Rattle & Hum (HD DVD)
Paramount // PG-13 // August 8, 2006 // Region 0
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 29, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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U2 was already an incredibly successful band throughout much of the '80s, but it was their 1987 album "The Joshua Tree" that propelled them to superstardom. Phil Joanou's documentary/concert film Rattle and Hum captures the band as they take the reins as the biggest rock band in the world, but it's at least in part because U2 hasn't quite settled into that role that the film is somewhat of a failure.

By this point in their career, U2 hadn't quite figured out what to do in front of a camera other than perform. When asked what the documentary is supposed to be about, they giggle their way through a half-assed explanation, one of the rare times when anyone in the band exhibits any sort of personality. U2 may be infamous now for their smirking, over-the-top stage shows, but the Joshua Tree-era band documented here is unrelentingly grim and self-serious. They don't play for any apparent passion for music or the thrill of having 70,000 people harmonize with them, but strictly to deliver the gospel. Continuing with the religious analogies, the way Bono presents himself on-stage as some sort of Christ figure is especially grating.

Their pretentious "musical journey" throughout the U.S. doesn't give any insight into the band or their creative process, not really amounting to much more than U2 playing songs in iconic places or collaborating with some of their American heroes. The interviews are mostly insubstantial, and Rattle and Hum works better when it focuses squarely on the music. It's welcome to hear the band do more with these songs than just play the album versions note for note; particularly memorable is a rendition of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" with just an electric guitar, a tambourine, a conga drum, and a Harlem gospel choir. Some of the songwriting is strong enough not to have to hide behind heavy instrumentation or overproduction, as seen in a solo electric performance of "Van Diemen's Land" from The Edge. Other highlights include a raucous run through "Desire" in their practice space in Dublin, playing "When Love Came to Town" with its inspiration, B.B. King, a graffiti-tinged cover of "All Along the Watchtower" in San Francisco, and tearing through "Angel of Harlem" in the legendary Sun Studio with the Memphis Horns. The remaining songs are primarily from concerts in Denver and Tempe. The HD DVD's track listing is inflated by snippets of covers (a few lines of "Ruby Tuesday" and "Sympathy for the Devil" sneak in near the end of "Bad" and don't really deserve to be listed so prominently, and the portion of "Gloria" isn't the song you'd expect), and "Freedom for My People" is just a short guitar/harmonica bit played by a couple of buskers, but the list from the back of the case goes something like this:

1.Helter Skelter 14.Bad
2.Van Diemen's Land 15.Ruby Tuesday
3.Desire 16.Sympathy for the Devil
4.Exit 17.Where the Streets Have No Name
5.Gloria 18.MLK
6.I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For 19.With or Without You
7.Freedom for My People 20.The Star-Spangled Banner
8.Silver and Gold 21.Bullet the Blue Sky
9.Angel of Harlem 22.Running to Stand Still
10.All Along the Watchtower 23.Sunday Bloody Sunday
11.In God's Country 24.Pride (In the Name of Love)
12.When Love Comes to Town 25.All I Want Is You

Rattle and Hum is buoyed by the strength of much of the songwriting and the intensity of the performances, but as a movie, it falls short of the watermark set by better staged concert films such as Stop Making Sense.

Video: Skim through any home theater enthusiast forum and you'll find ominous sounding posts like Avoid U2 Rattle and Hum like the Plague. It's certainly an unconventional choice for an early HD DVD release; I would've expected Paramount to whip out nothing but glossy eye candy to show off the strengths of the format in these early days, and Rattle and Hum is on the polar opposite end of that spectrum. This is by design an extremely grainy film and was shot almost entirely in black and white. The film opts for more of a spontaneous documentary feel instead of meticulously lighting each shot, and the result is that black levels are often anemic and contrast looks off. The 1.85:1 image tends to be murky and inconsistently soft, lacking the sort of crispness and clarity that viewers have come to expect from HD DVD.

Personally, I love it. The black and white photography gives Rattle and Hum a timeless appearance -- the short stretch in color looks especially dated by comparison -- and I see the gritty texture of the film grain as an effective stylistic choice, not a flaw that should be smoothened out. As mentioned a few paragraphs up, I'm not keen on every aspect of the execution, especially the way Bono's humorless, messianic posturing is captured on-stage, but as a concept, I find it much more engaging than the sterile, unimaginative video-based photography I'm used to seeing on cable high definition channels.

Rattle and Hum was encoded using MPEG-4 rather than the industry standard VC-1, and it's currently the only domestic HD DVD to do so. It's been theorized, admittedly by someone with a vested interest in Microsoft's VC-1 codec, that it's because current MPEG-4 encoders soften the image somewhat that it got the nod for Rattle and Hum as it helps mask some of the film's eccentricities. It'd be disappointing if there's any merit to that. Given this movie's unusual appearance, it's not really possible to use it to draw any definitive conclusions about how MPEG-4 stacks up against VC-1, but the fast camera whips and mild strobing don't result in any compression hiccups. Some stretches late in the movie seemed somewhat blocky, but I couldn't tell for sure if that was artifacting or just golf ball-sized film grain.

The movie was released on DVD seven years ago, and the master used for this HD DVD may also date all the way back to 1999, especially considering that the number of specks scattered throughout is much higher than I'd expect from a Paramount catalog title these days. If this is the case, a new transfer may result in a more attractive image, although this is and should remain a grainy film.

Coming up with a quick summary is a bit tricky. Strictly by comparison to the other HD DVD releases from Warner, Universal, and Paramount, Rattle and Hum scrapes the bottom of the list in terms of overall video quality. As far as how representative this transfer is of the best Rattle and Hum could look without damaging it with video noise reduction or betraying the intended look of the film, I'm not really in any position to know. This isn't a disc anyone would want to use to show off a home theater, though, and more casual U2 fans probably won't find the improvement over the current DVD to be dramatic enough to warrant spending another $25.

Audio: At least there'll be less bickering about the way the movie sounds. Rattle and Hum offers multichannel audio in Dolby Digital Plus and DTS, and although the mix is conventional and really doesn't take any risks, it still sounds rather nice. The performances are spread primarily across the front channels, and the vocals and instrumentation come through clearly and distinctly, nicely balanced without one element ever overwhelming any other. There is some noticeable stereo separation, although the mix doesn't isolate instruments to certain channels, and this gives the soundtrack a thunderous roar. The lower frequencies also get a decent workout, often courtesy of the crisp, flawlessly rendered kick drum. Surround use is lightweight, though, reserving the rear channels largely for crowd noise between songs along with some barely perceptible reverb.

The disc doesn't have any soundtracks in alternate languages for all the obvious reasons, but there are optional subtitles.

Supplements: Paramount has bragging rights for being the first studio to issue an HD DVD disc with all of its extras in high-definition. That sounds more impressive than it really is since the sole extra is a 1080p teaser trailer. Interestingly enough, the trailer has been encoded using Microsoft's VC-1 codec versus the movie's MPEG-4.

Conclusion: Nothing about Rattle and Hum particularly impresses, and this HD DVD doesn't offer anything compelling enough to warrant the hefty premium over the readily available DVD, especially considering that the DVD can be had for less than six bucks online. Rent It.
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