OPINION: Can J.J. Abrams “fix” U2 forever?

A reminder of happier times for U2 fans

U2 fans are jaded. Those of us – myself included – who forgave their commercial self-indulgence of the 2000’s, were still dismayed by Spiderman, the Apple fiasco, and the band’s continuous decline into mainstream pop. Even when we have appreciated certain albums during this time – No line on the horizon springs to mind – we have been disappointed – even embarrassed – by the trappings. For example, the 360 tour was two-and-a-half-year trek with an oversized stage and a morbidly tepid opening song, just so they could temporarily hold the record for biggest grossing tour of all time. It’s not that they wrote the tepid Spiderman soundtrack (though Sinistereo deserves a second listen), it’s that they chained themselves to the failures of the production company and became the unwitting stars of Broadway’s biggest laughingstock. It’s not that they gave their album away for free to iTunes users, it’s that it inserted itself into your iTunes library without your permission. It’s not that they’re anti-Trump, it’s that they’re so bad at being anti-Trump.

In all of this, U2 fans are humiliated, frustrated, and shy. Shy about acknowledging their fandom, lest they feel the need to “defend” any of the band’s myriad missteps of the 21st century.

In this fan’s opinion, J.J. Abrams might be just the guy to fix the band permanently.

To reach this opinion, I have had to make peace with two things: First, there’s the fact that as an artistic going concern, U2 is done. In the underrated classic All I want is you, Bono promised Ali “her story to remain untold.” That promise, like many we make from the cradle to the grave, will be broken during this series. It will be the tidy bookend, along with a probably final album/tour cycle, following which they will either call it a day or just not be heard from all that much.

Second, U2 is NOT the story. Bono is the story. Only one band member can create an altar-ego strong enough to pull Salman Rushdie out of hiding from his fatwa. Only one band member can make a phone call and get the use of the International Space Station. Only one band member is the story. Or at least the center of the story.

However, when we add what we know, I.E. what is pulled from reliable reporting sources, with what we think we know, like that shared by the reputable fan site U2songs, we can see the embryo of one hell of a TV show to provide the aforementioned bookend. As rock and roll stories go, U2’s is one hell of a page turner, with war zones, famines, and Presidents. Not to mention that the joint digital rolodexes of Bono and Abrams could turn it into a star-studded Netflix event.  

JJ Abrams has been quite silent on the details, but he has let it be known that they are building to a massive climax and has described U2’s history using words like “spectacular” and “cinematic”. Rolling Stone suggested that the series should eschew the mega-successful version of U2 and focus only on the early years, ending with the troubled but spectacular Red Rocks show. However, in making that statement, Rolling Stone seems to believe this will be a single season series – in which case I would agree with their analysis. if the rumor mill from U2songs has legs to it, the show will have three seasons, and an option for a fourth. This means there would be not one, but three – or four – climaxes. Red Rocks would therefore make sense for the end of season 1, marking the moment the band arrived and were able to say about their song with straight faces that there’s been “a lot of talk, maybe too much talk”.

Rolling Stone says this is the pinnacle of the show

Invoking Live Aid as a season closer would be a mistake, and JJ Abrams would surely dare not tread too heavily on the sacred turf set by Bohemian Rhapsody – a show with whom this will share the screenwriter. But Live Aid could make a good opener for season 2, as it sets Bono off on his liberal guilt-trip to Africa and Central America, adventures that gave us The Joshua Tree and Bono’s tireless charity work, respectively. To ignore Bono’s philanthropy, despite its divisiveness, would be to cast a deceit upon a central part of U2’s character – and presumably JJ Abrams will want to namedrop Margaret Thatcher, Bob Geldof and Bishop Tutu to keep the casual observer interested.

The start of a life-long journey

A good closing point for season 2 would be the New Year’s concerts of 1989/90, where Bono tells the crowd that they must “go away and dream it all up again.” We know that there was turmoil behind the scenes, and that would make for excellent drama. Season 3 could then open with an isolated and alcoholic Adam, a divorced Edge, a disillusioned Bono and a motorcycle loner Larry, all unsure of what their stardom means. It should then follow the band to Berlin, through their fighting and fury, and the difficult pregnancy and tumultuous birth of Achtung Baby – which Abrams should position as the bands magnum opus. The Zoo TV tour will translate to TV spectacularly, as will MacPhisto’s hilarious telephone calls. Personally, though, I think season 3 should end in Sarajevo in 1997. Maybe skip Bono’s throat issues that night for the sake of artistic license. But showcase the band at its best, sticking it to the fans, the soldiers and the media with MOFO and a 40-foot moving lemon. If the season doesn’t get it’s alleged fourth season extension, Sarajevo would be the best taste to leave in the mouths of the casual binge watcher.

The most important concert in U2 history?

Of course, there are lots of other options. 9/11 changed U2 and provided them with their biggest moment in the USA – and arguably the best Superbowl half-time show of all time. Personally, I would leave that until the show gets its season 4 extension – because it’s not a big loss to the U2 story if it remains untold. If it does happen, picture season 4 opening on September 11th 2001. U2 is called to soothe a grieving nation at the Superbowl, and Bono personally meets George Bush to push him to pass the act that committed American funds to end the AIDS crisis in Africa. Perhaps end with Live 8 – certainly not a highlight for U2 fans – but the height of their hubris, when Bono called and Presidents came running.

It’s uncool to save African children

Of course, JJ Abrams may go an entirely different route. But with the amount of hubris attached to U2, it would seem ridiculous to attempt to not place them in a political context. One could say it would be ridiculous to not make them ridiculous. The movie Forrest Gump was a classic because of the interplay between Hanks’ lovable moron and the political context of the times. Any U2 screenplay should do the same. Interspersed with the bands story should be the political context within which it occurred, because those gave shape to the music, and added in equal amounts gravity and hubris. U2 is not just a pop group. The U2 spyplane incident, albeit historic, should be shown as a backdrop to the band name. A TV showing the swearing-in of Jimmy Carter as the band sets up for a McGonagles show in 1977. The anger over events in Northern Ireland as a backdrop to the WAR album. Ronald Reagan “not trading arms for hostages” as a backdrop to Bullet the blue sky. George H W Bush saying “I heard Governor Clinton talked with the pop group U2. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against U2 but when I want foreign policy advice I will call Prime Minister John Major and leave Governor Clinton to talk to Boy George”. Set Achtung Baby against TV coverage of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Place the Zoo TV show against the backdrop of the Yugoslav breakup wars, and feature McPhisto calling the White House in its proper historical context. It worked for Forrest Gump and a host of other movies that place popular figures in their historical context.

The right to be ridiculous is something JJ and Netflix should hold dear

Considering that PEPFAR, signed into law by President Bush under pressure from a Bono-backed conservative alliance, still exists, and has saved millions of lives in Africa, this show should rightly depict U2 as something more than a rock band – and Bono as a historical figure – albeit a self-proclaimed ridiculous one.

Another trick I hope Abrams pulls is breaking the fourth wall to afford brief interviews with well known artists and politicians, offering both positive and negative comments. It would be interesting to show Noel Gallagher heap praise on the band, and then cut to Liam calling them “shite”.

As previously stated, Abrams may go in an entirely different direction. But one thing we know is that he will surely end the series on a high, and that implies nothing from the last 15 years will be included. No Spiderman. No Apple. No irrelevance. The vast audience of non-U2 fans will watch this because it’s Netflix, it’s JJ Abrams, it’s a spectacular story, and because Abrams will cast great actors and produce amazing trailers. They will not be exposed to the humiliation of the band’s slow death – and the Gen-Z watchers will be too young to remember the iPhone debacle and will watch the show from a position of ignorance. They will see a vibrant band at the peak of their powers, equally as comfortable in front of peasants and presidents. They will laugh with MacPhisto. They will be introduced to WAR, The Joshua Tree and Achtung, Baby.

Granted, the biggest threat to the success of the series is Bono himself. His big mouth getting in the way. Anything and everything that Bono does and says as part of the shows launch will just remind viewers that he is just a tired old pop star in platform boots. And that’s the best-case scenario. But if anyone can shut that mouth it’s the man who created Lost and arguably rescued both Star Wars AND Star Trek.  

And when the series ends, I truly hope it will be easier to be a U2 fan again, even if that fandom comes with the bittersweet bookend of a series that implies that the story has been told, and the future has dried up.

I’m OK with glorifying the past. It’ll be nice if the kids share the view.

People under 40 need to know this Bono