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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

"A Sort of Homecoming" tours through U2's past and present

When Roger Ebert reviewed (and panned) “U2: Rattle and Hum” on Siskel & Ebert and The Movies back in 1988, he rightfully complained that he couldn’t understand the words, which, among many other things, detracted from his enjoyment of the film. It’s a valid criticism. Sure, I understood the words, but I had bought the album, listened endlessly and read along with every song. For the uninitiated listener, though, it really became a challenge to decipher what Bono was singing about with such an echoey mix and a band that rarely went for subtlety. For the die-hard fan, though, “U2: Rattle and Hum” remains a beautifully cinematic experience meant for the biggest screen and the loudest speaker system. Oh, it has flaws. Many flaws. But Ebert was right. It’s for fans only. As a film and even the simplest of concert films, it’s too big of a nothing. Why should anyone care about this band? What are they singing about? Why can’t they talk to us?

Here we are, 35 years later and U2 can now articulate eloquently in front of the cameras, explain themselves and, especially in the case of “Bono & The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming, with David Letterman,” we can hear the words perfectly. The two most prominent creative forces behind the band, Bono and The Edge, have taken U2’s music down a few notches in the production department and have opted for a more intimate approach to all of U2's songs, even the most hard-rocking and fiercest of their works. The intentions have more clarity and the viewer is allowed inside of the songs in a way that hasn’t been explored before. Ebert might’ve been happy with this.

Die-hard fans, though, have been divided over the entire endeavor since its inception. It’s hard to talk about this documentary without talking about the “Songs of Surrender” project as a whole, including Bono’s memoir and one-man show from 2022, “Stories of Surrender”. Basically, U2 have gone back and re-recorded and re-imagined forty U2 songs and have released these recordings in a 4-CD set (and tons of different colored vinyl editions, which is its own brand of absurdity). Many of these reworkings sound magnificent. A few have been done before. Some just don’t work at all. One of the general points of contention among fans, though, is the lack of new material from this band who haven't released anything new since 2018. It’s not the most exciting thing to have, as one fan put it, “a Starbucks version” of U2 songs in the world.

Does “Homecoming” justify this multi-tiered release? It sure tries, even if the album itself never gets mentioned by name. The film is an odd, mixed bag of items: David Letterman as the tourist, not only through Dublin during his first-ever visit, but also through U2’s music, their past and their friendship. It’s a traditional recounting of U2’s biggest moments while also an explanation of its current softer side, via a performance at Dublin’s Ambassador Theater with Bono and the Edge joined by Glen Hansard and other musicians who aren’t the other essential half of the band, Adam Clayton or Larry Mullen, Jr. Letterman interviews Bono and The Edge together and separately, while also doing bits with local Dubliners and chatting with the boys on stage between songs. Even with an accomplished documentarian, Morgan Neville, at the helm, it’s a weird mix of items that shouldn’t work for an 85-minute film, but I couldn’t help but be highly entertained and moved anyway. It helps that I have U2 fandom running through my veins.

That will help for any viewer, though. Like “U2: Rattle and Hum” and Davis Guggenheim's “From the Sky Down,” this is mostly for fans only. Therein lies a conundrum for someone like me who makes part of his living as a film critic, but who feels elated that this type of media exists in U2’s filmography. In my heart of hearts as a film critic, I know that “Homecoming” really doesn’t make a lot of sense as a documentary, but as a U2 fan, I was ready for this to be a series. I have read criticisms about this film on Letterbox’d and I cannot help but agree with certain sentiments: It’s not U2 without Adam and Larry. They should be here even if they’re not performing. Why not visit Cedarwood Road that fans have been told about for many decades? Us die-hards know that U2 doesn’t typically write and record a song in a matter of hours (as depicted here), so why not get into that part of their creative process? It’s these questions that make me wonder, is this the film critic in me making these assessments or the U2 critic?

As fans who pay a lot of money for albums, merch and especially way too much for concert tickets, we have a right to our criticisms while also acknowledging that no one owes us anything. Film critics are no different from U2 fans, or any die-hard fan of a band, really. We spend lots of money on movie tickets, blu-rays, memorabilia and plane fare to film festivals. When you love something so much, there still exists a part of you that needs things a certain way. Many U2 fans hate this new project. They want the electric guitar and especially want Adam’s bass and Larry’s unmistakable drumming style (they are on the album here and there, but nowhere to be found in this film). These fans like the occasional stripped-down version of a U2 song, but a whole project centered on something like that? Why?

There are also fans who are all in, who find the intimacy of these new versions to be a now-vital part of the discography. I can’t say I’m super-excited to have this album. I have already heard bits and pieces of it in the audiobook version of Bono’s “Surrender” memoir (perhaps the best audiobook production I’ve ever heard), but maybe I haven’t sat with it long enough. Maybe it’s the right album to play in the background when company comes over and I don’t want to subject them to anything too bombastic. Or maybe it’s better than that and I’ll find myself listening to it more than I thought I would. It’s all still too fresh to determine right now. I do know that I dearly hope they got “the past” out of their system. Three albums, three tours, a memoir, a possible Netflix series, a one-man show and pretty much every Record Store Day release in the past few years is quite enough of an account of U2’s story. It’s time to move on.

So, where does “Homecoming” fit in with all of this? LIke “U2: Rattle and Hum,” it’s a scrapbook. A trifle, really. Having David Letterman there helps deflate the self-importance that became all-too-present in the 1988 film, and how can anyone not smile when David Letterman is around? As a documentary, it doesn’t quite work, but it’s incredibly entertaining nonetheless. When it’s a concert film, it’s a fine representation for showcasing these new versions, but I prefer the spontaneity of the scenes in the Dublin pub. My head and my heart will always be at odds over stuff like this, but when the heart is abloom, it shoots up through the stony ground and any day that arrives with something by U2 and David Letterman is, well, you know…

Thumbs up.

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