Phil Joanou’s groundbreaking concert film U2: Rattle and Hum opened during my senior year of high school, on the birthday of my lifelong friend and musical co-conspirator Todd Fadel.

And I was so jealous. Todd would automatically have the most awesome birthday party ever.

And he pretty much did, because we gathered at his house, ate a bunch of Pizza Hut pizza, and then headed out to Portland’s Eastgate theater on November 4, 1988.

That was our formula for fun in those days. Yeah. I know.

But it gets better.

U2’s album The Joshua Tree was more popular than I can describe. People didn’t love it the way they loved chart-topping pop records. They loved it as if it offered the meaning of life. U2’s music was calling listeners not just to listen, but to respond — to care about what was going on in the world, to reach out and make a difference. Rock music suddenly seemed capable of so much more than we’d previously thought.

The first time I heard The Joshua Tree, I knew immediately that this was going to change my life. I know right where I was — sitting on a school bus with the high school choir, ready to head out on that 1987 choir tour — when my friend Dan Hutt loaned me his Walkman and said, “You’ve gotta hear this.” I can still remember hearing “Where the Streets Have No Name” as the familiar neighborhood fell away and we were off on “a musical journey” together.

But now, more than a year later, as Todd and I approached the Eastgate Theater, I knew every song inside and out. And I’d gone back to absorb the full U2 catalog — Boy, October, War, The Unforgettable Fire — as if I’d known those albums all my life. I had never been to a U2 concert. Not on my budget. This would be like stepping up into the front row.

We waited in the theater lobby, which was agonizing because we could hear the music shaking the whole building as it played for those inside the matinee showing. Eventually, I confess, I lost my patience. Following my friend Wade Hopkins, I slipped through the door at the back of the theater and stood there, in the aisle, in the dark, immediately slack-jawed in awe before the Portland area’s most awesome movie screen.

The volume was incredible, louder than I’d ever heard in a theater… almost as loud as a real arena rock show.

And what I saw wasn’t like any kind of live music footage I’d ever seen. Cameras had never soared the way these cameras, guided by director Phil Joanou, soared.

And this song — “With or Without You,” my favorite song from the day I first heard it all the way to today — had never sounded so good.

What’s more, the song’s finale, which was already extravagant on the album The Joshua Tree, ascended higher with additional lyrics and ecstatic guitar playing by The Edge.

Here’s what I saw:

I wondered if I’d ever feel so completely elevated and inspired in a theater again. I’m not sure that I have. Unless you count the next two times I saw the film… the next day, at a matinee, and again right afterward, in the late afternoon. Three times in less than 24 hours. That hasn’t happened since. For any movie.

You’re probably saying, “That? What’s so amazing about that?”

It won’t seem nearly as exciting to viewers today, because this movie set the standard, and pretty soon every rock band was taking their turn with aerial cameras, colors, and innovations. Now, video is such a huge part of the concert experience, and I think we’ve lost something important… that sense of being in the presence of a live band, focusing on the actual players on the stage instead of manipulated images of them. It’s ironic, but I think that problem began to increase dramatically after Rattle and Hum, because the imagery of the live show was so powerful that every band wanted to equal it. And audiences became further addicted to imagery of bands instead of the bands themselves. (At least U2 had the lyrics and musicianship to back up the visual energy. Few other bands have come close.)

So now I have mixed feelings about what Rattle and Hum set in motion. But for a while, this was the only way many of us could ever afford to see what U2 was really like onstage.

And for concertgoers, it was the first chance they had to experience the quality of U2’s live music, which tends to get overwhelmed by the sound of a roaring crowd, and diminished by the poor quality of arena-rock acoustics.

Moments I’ll never forget:

  • The blistering opener: The band steals back “Helter Skelter” from Charles Manson.
  • The revelatory lead vocal by The Edge on “Van Dieman’s Land.”
  • Watching the band work out “Desire,” drawn tightly together in a big space, as if lighting a bonfire that roars to life.
  • “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” with a Harlem Gospel Choir
  • “Rock and roll stops the traffic!”
  • B.B. King explaining that he’s terrible with chords, adding “That’s a lot of emotion there, young man.” Bono’s biography should be called A Lot of Emotion There, Young Man.
  • The transition from “Bad” (black and white) into “Where the Streets Have No Name” (breaking into color, as if we’ve arrived in something better than Oz).
  • “With Or Without You,” the peak of the film.
  • “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” in which Bono is caught up in a righteous fury about an IRA bombing back home that very day.
  • “All I Want is You,” a tremendous end credits song that kept the audience in their seats, enthralled, to the end.

For me, Rattle and Hum offers the definitive versions of most of U2’s best early material. And I’m going to happily revisit it here, on its 25th birthday.

Maybe you had to be there.

But just so you know that I wasn’t alone… here are a few other testimonies about how we loved U2, and how they loved us back, in 1988.

Oh… one more thing.

Happy birthday, Todd!

Chris Linebarger:

Thousand Oaks, CA. I was a sophomore in high school. There was this girl I had been working up the nerve to ask out to a movie. Since I was a huge U2 fan, I thought this would be the perfect occasion. I sang my heart out through the whole film, while she stared at me like I was the world’s biggest nerd (she ended up marrying one of my friends). Her icy stare didn’t phase me one bit. It was the first of seven U2 shows I’ve attended thus far. I still remember my heart soaring as Bono rang out, “So let it go…”, in “Bad.” The film was a defining moment in my life.

Sarah Partain:

My dad, who is a musician and huge U2 fan, took me and my two younger brothers to see it. I was 10, they were 7 and 8. I had fallen for U2 earlier in the year, listening to The Joshua Tree over and over one Saturday afternoon. We had just moved to our house in the country and I was helping to unpack in the living room.

Anyway, the theater was doing a coats-for-kids type if thing and I think we all got in free with our coats contribution.

I remember being so awestruck at how big they were, on screen, how clear and large Bono’s sweat droplets were and how awesome, in general, the whole thing was. During ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday,’ my dad took my brothers to the restroom and I was faced with dealing with Bono’s passion for The Revolution by myself. It wasn’t too bad, I was just surprised and perplexed — I had never heard a Christian swear before! Needless to say it was a memorable experience, so much so that we rejoiced when my dad brought the VHS version home a few months later!

Deborah Bloom:

I didn’t have the chance to see the movie on the big screen but was blown away when I finally watched it on VHS. I didn’t have words to express it clearly at the time (I was only 16) but I knew that the band were doing something powerful and spiritual on stage. I’ve spent much more time with the soundtrack (wearing out multiple cassettes and CDs) since than the actual film but when my mom and I went on a vacation through the Upper South, I insisted we stop in Memphis and see Graceland and the Sun Records studio. My mom was a bit confused as to why I was interested in what U2 did there than say Elvis or Sam Phillips (the original one, LOL) but I still had goosebumps knowing that I was in an important musical place. I bought a t-shirt at the gift shop that I wore nearing to shreds and was baptized in it during my sophomore year of college.

I owe many of my musical loves to the soundtrack. It’s probably one of the first places I heard African-American gospel music as well as what is now called Americana music.

To me the album has held up better than Joshua Tree due I’m sure to its getting less airplay over the last 25 (!) years. Looking at the tracklist that aren’t any songs I can’t imagine loving to listen to another 1,000 times.

Don Morgan:

Like you, I saw it multiple times in the theater. I remember seeing the trailers during “Saturday Night Live” the weekend it opened and feeling like U2 had reached the pinnacle of cultural relevance. A few days later I was talking with a casual friend, a skateboarder who I wouldn’t have pegged as a U2 fan (more of a Black Flag kind of guy). He said, “We went to see Rattle and Hum and sang LOUDLY during every song!” I said, “Oh, me too!” Then he said, rather condescendingly, “Um, we did it to annoy all the crazy U2 fans.” Oops. Turns out he wasn’t a U2 guy after all.

Curtis Swartzentruber:

It was probablyone of the first 5-10 movies I saw in a theater. Growing up Mennonite, we weren’t allowed to go to the movie theater. So when I eventually started going it was still a pretty rare experience and I remember seeing this one fairly early on. Reminder thinking Larry was so cool, as well as the weirdness (for me) of seeing the band wandering around the south, B.B. King’s “can somebody else play the chords” comment and when the color finally came on.

Bob Denst:

More than recalling seeing it at the theater, what I remember is being at one of the shows in Phoenix where the concert was filmed. I believe the tickets were about $8 as they were looking for a very full stadium. We were way in the back middle. As good as that show was, it was overshadowed by the concert they gave as the second show of that Joshua Tree tour here in Tucson nearly a year earlier. Bono had just recovered from laryngitis and the band was crackling with energy.

Todd Truffin:

I was a freshman at a small Bible college in rural Georgia 675 miles from home. The only theater in town was a run-down, low-ceilinged dump. If you walked down the center aisle during the movie, your head would block the projection. It barely had stereo sound, and you could hear the projector clacking away as the film played. I went to a late evening showing with a hall-mate. We weren’t close friends, but we ran in the same circle. Plus, he had a car.

Despite all of those potential distractions, as the lights went down and “Helter Skelter” almost blew out the speakers, I was transported to a different world. When the brilliant red stage erupts from the screen, I was Dorothy landing in Oz. Driving back to campus, we were pretty quiet, stunned. As we showed our special permission slips for being out late, the power and freedom of the film were reinforced as we slid back under the protective cloud of en loco parentis regulation.

Chris Hutton:

My story is a little odd.  I am too young to have seen the original film when it came out; but I still adore it. Rattle and Hum is the one U2 album I will consistently return to when I need a fix for their sound.   It is my go-to U2 album.

Lauren Jennings:

When I was in the 10th grade my dad took me to see U2 in concert after How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004) was released. I had been an amateur fan of theirs for years (The Joshua Tree, my favorite album of all time, was released the year before I was born), so seeing them live was such a rush. We didn’t have great seats, but because we were so far back and so high up, we were able to sit for most of the concert and just really enjoy the music. This is one of my favorite memories I have of my dad. Growing up he took me on daddy-daughter dates, and this one goes down in the books as one of the greats.

A few years later, during my junior year of college, my dad died. No more daddy-daughter dates. No more sharing memories together. Going through some of his belongings several months later, I came upon the DVD of U2’s Rattle and Hum. So in homage both to my childhood favorite band and to the dad who was no longer there to listen with me, I watched. Certain smells remind me of specific memories, and certain tastes cause instant aversion. So, too, do certain sounds remind me of home. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” accompanied by a Harlem gospel choir, will forever remind of home. It’s just a rockumentary, but it’s so much more: it’s the heritage my father left me.

Nicole Hardy:

I was in college at BYU when it came out. But my most vivid memory is less of the theater experience than this: U2 refused to play in Utah, because at the time the state didn’t recognize MLK day. (Not sure if it does now). The entire population of Provo, Utah was U2 obsessed at the time, and we drove in hordes to Arizona and other surrounding states to see them on tour.

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