Published Mar 01, 2001I hate to be one to try limit cross-disciplinary artistic pursuits, but with a precious few exceptions, very few musicians make good actors. Starring in a lip-synched three-minute video doesn't mean you can carry emotional weight in a feature-length film. Of course, if you weren't that much of a musician to begin with Mark Wahlberg comes to mind then a change of career is welcome. And as fans of Keanu Reeves or Russell Crowe can tell you, the reverse is equally true.
But what happens when you're no longer good at your chosen profession? Meet German film director Wim Wenders and his unfortunate partner-in-crime Bono, singer from U2. Ever since they started chumming around together, Wenders's films have gotten progressively worse while the soundtracks get better. Meanwhile Bono's band achieves their best work when they're not trying to be a rock band (Zooropa, Passengers).
This has all come to a head with The Million Dollar Hotel, a film by Wenders based on a story by Bono, and featuring a soundtrack spearheaded by Bono and a stellar cast of musicians: Brian Eno, ambient trumpeter Jon Hassell, Daniel Lanois, guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Greg Cohen (Tom Waits), drummer Brian Blade (Lanois, Emmylou Harris), programmer Adam Dorn (Mocean Worker), producer Hal Willner and U2 themselves.
The soundtrack was released a year ago. It's exponentially better than either one of U2's last two records, and it's a gorgeous work if you subtract some bad lyrics, a cringe-inducing Milla Jovovich cover of Lou Reed's "Satellite of Love" and an inexplicable Spanish punk version of "Anarchy in the UK." But the point is that this is what Bono should be doing: making evocative, ethereal soundtracks with this calibre of musician. I'd pay big bucks to see this group on stage together, not U2 at this stage in their career.
What Bono should not be doing, though, is writing scripts. The Million Dollar Hotel debuted at the Berlin Film Festival in November 1999, and is only now getting a North American release. The reasons for its delay became evident once the reviews started rolling in. The Globe and Mail, who gave it a zero-star review, called it "one of the most abysmal films in recent memory," and a "pretentious, ridiculous fiasco," citing walk-outs at a free screening. The Village Voice dubbed it "something of a monstrosity liquored self-indulgence taken to its own astral plane." Mel Gibson, who produced the movie and plays a starring role, was quoted at a promotional press conference that he considers it "as boring as a dog's ass."
I haven't seen it. The film lasted but a week in Toronto and is unlikely to hit my small town rep cinema, with advance press like that. But Wenders has been stumbling ever since making his masterpiece, 1987's Wings of Desire. That film, which featured a memorable concert sequence with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, was a bit of a muddled mess, too, but it had a clear point that was conveyed with such poetic grace that its faults were easy to overlook. Its sequel, Faraway So Close, had more visible faults, as did 1991's snoozy Until the End of the World and 1997's End of Violence, a beautiful yet entirely convoluted take on paranoiac modern film noir.
Wenders' last brush with any kind of success came with his 1999 documentary Buena Vista Social Club. This barely worked like another equally flawed documentary, Theremin because of the inherent appeal of the story, not because of any great filmmaking. For a film about ancient, storied musicians reaching their popular peak while still living in a post-revolutionary dictatorship, the most fascinating anecdote that Wenders gets from somebody is: "I just started singing, and I found out later Ry [Cooder] was recording!" However, the musical sequences, particularly the closing concert, are riveting and emotional.
Wenders has great taste in music, and the soundtracks to Until the End of the World and End of Violence easily stand as the best music commissioned for film in at least the past decade, featuring Tom Waits, DJ Shadow, Los Lobos, R.E.M., Talking Heads, Daniel Lanois, Nick Cave, Lou Reed, Jane Siberry, Can, Elvis Costello, Vic Chesnutt, and plenty more. And then there's Ry Cooder's 1985 soundtrack to Paris, Texas, which inspired dozens of today's indie rock slocore cinematic wannabe's.
Bono: stick to the dreamscapes and stay away from scripts. Wim: direct videos and commission soundtracks. We don't need another overblown U2 album, and we don't need another dull and confusing Wenders pic.