Reviewing Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark without having seen the production is a bit like reviewing The Pale King. There are plenty of comments you can make, but nothing you can really say. It’s all conjecture. You can talk about the creators, their significance and ambition, but that’s about it. Song lyrics probably shouldn’t be considered outside of their musical settings, and showtunes can’t be evaluated (or even experienced) apart from their choreography. Yet here we are.
Doubtless you’re aware that the score for the show was written by Bono and The Edge – as they themselves have joked, “We used to be famous for being in U2.” Problem is, with the exception of Achtung Baby, Americans like their U2 more earnest than camp. Irony may have saved their career in the 90s, but they had to retreat (somewhat) to their Joshua Tree wheelhouse to keep our interest in the 00s. Not that they ever stopped moving forward – “Moment of Surrender” from 2009’s No Line on the Horizon may be the single most transcendent moment they’ve put on tape – but when most of the record-buying public thinks of U2, they don’t think of disco balls and giant lemons.
Some of us find ourselves in the opposite, um, camp. I consider Achtung Baby THE U2 record, and over the years I’ve even noticed that, as flawed as they may be, Pop and Zooropa get the most spins on my stereo (can’t wait for those reissues!). Plus, the band’s little extracurricular excursions (Million Dollar Hotel, Passengers) rarely disappoint. For whatever reason, the hipster establishment that recoils from the more self-important aspects of Bono’s Bono-ness tends to have an even harder time with their more tongue-in-cheek efforts. Which is more revealing about their sensibilities than the band’s, i.e. those guys are never happy. Nevertheless, U2’s indulgent cartoon side, of which Turn Off the Dark is a prime example, gets short shrift all the way around.
And then there’s the subject matter of the musical, the long-suffering Peter Parker and my first love superhero-wise. He’s not an alien or a billionaire, just a regular guy with insecurity and sensitivity to spare. He’s the hero that’s regularly misunderstood by his public, the one most lambasted by the press, the one with the girl problems. Good thing he’s not in it for the personal glory. In fact, while Spidey’s motto may be “with great power comes great responsibility,” his operating philosophy is almost the polar opposite. That is, he’s at his best when he’s not taking himself too seriously – kind of like Bono. Spiderman’s adventures are the stories of a man continually forgetting who he is, shooting himself in the foot and being reminded by circumstances outside of his control of his purpose/power. Lots of down-and-out moments, lots of second chance scenarios. So Spidey is as close as we come in the Marvel universe to God working through a broken vessel (take that, mutants!).
All this is a long-winded way of saying that I was primed to love Turn Off The Dark, regardless and almost in spite of the buzz.
First the bad news: This is not Bono and The Edge’s best work. If there’s a coherent narrative being told, it simply doesn’t come across on the soundtrack. At least on the non-Patrick Page/Green Goblin numbers. Which isn’t “the end of the world,” but left simply with the songs, it’s very difficult not to wonder what they would sound like with Bono singing and the rest of the band playing behind him (Larry Mullen is particularly missed). This is not helped by the fact that so many of these tunes contain lines or riffs “borrowed” from actual U2 songs. The temptation to play “spot-the-rewrite” can be a little distracting. For example, “Bouncing Off The Walls” sounds like an attempt to redeem “Get On Your Boots.” The line “vision not visibility” appears numerous times – you may remember it from such songs as “Moment of Surrender.” “Picture This” even cops part of the chorus of “Beautiful Day.” Which wouldn’t be so rough, if the songs in question weren’t lesser versions of their U2 counterparts. Only “Pull the Trigger” improves on its blueprint, No Line‘s “Stand-Up Comedy.”
The good news: It is not their worst either. Contrary to the many reviews I’ve read, the trademark U2 emotional dynamics are there, “The Boy Falls From The Sky” being a particularly prime slice (the recorded version is heads-and-feet above the live U2 version that’s been making the rounds). “Rise Above” is a genuinely moving ballad, as is “I Just Can’t Walk Away” and “If The World Should End.” On the latter, they even display a surprising knack for writing for a female voice. As you may have heard, Patrick Page, who plays the Green Goblin, does indeed steal the show. Or at least the soundtrack. The martial climax of “A Freak Like Me Needs Company” is the single most inspired moment of the recording, a truly original piece of electro-pop that seamlessly builds into an authoritarian anthem. And the aforementioned “Pull The Trigger,” sung by Page, is also super fun. The Edge does all of us Protestants proud on “Sinistereo,” a perfectly tacky theme for Spidey’s infamously low-wattage “gallery of rogues.”
So their musical instincts remain very much intact, if a little stale in places.
How about the words? Again, it’s hard to say without having seen the production. There’s a great one-two punch on the topic of belief in “The Boy Falls From The Sky” and “Rise Above 1,” in which our hero recognizes the importance of faith (in oneself, in the universe, in one’s powers, in love, etc), but can’t seem to summon it on his own. The ‘rising above’ in question, rather than a personal peptalk, appears to be predicated on the letting go of oneself: “And you said rise above/ I can’t I can’t…Has your heart had enough? Is it time to let go? And rise above/… And you said rise above/ Yourself.” In “Picture This,” a particularly incomprehensible number, Bono himself shouts the Bono-rifically cruciform mantra, “Just crimes, peace wars, true lies/ I can see a noble shame/ I can see a living death/ I can see a healing pain, a pure decay, a helping hurt, a freeing jail.” In “DIY World” they lampoon the self-deification at the root of most (super-)villainy to great effect: “We’re masters of creation/ DNA is the way, now that evolution’s had its way/ The intelligent design solution/ And we, we could live for a thousand years/ Cause we can be what we wanna be/ And we need to be what we gotta be (Do It Yourself).”
Thematically, they preserve the endearing David-and-Goliath aspect that informs all the best Spiderman stories. And there are hints throughout of the gracious love of Mary Jane for Peter that we’ve seen evidenced so powerfully in the films – a love that seldom hesitates to subordinate its own needs to the “higher calling” of Spiderman – but only hints. I suspect that the love story is ultimately a bit weightless, pun intended. Beyond that, it’s obvious that they’re trying to say something here, but it’s difficult to discern what exactly (or what exactly the central conflict is).
Of course, it wouldn’t be Bono if there weren’t a few lyrical clunkers. In the gospel-tinged “Rise Above 2,” which I’m presuming represents the dramatic climax of the show, Parker sings, “An old man said to me its not who but what you know/ And knowledge isn’t wisdom without control/ Better still to be the changes that you want to see/ But they come slow, so slow.” Those lines may be delivered with ambivalence, but still… You can almost hear the eyes rolling in NYC. I prefer the closing verse, even if I’m not entirely sure what it means: “And every heart that bleeds/ Will colour your world red/ And the sorrow in the night/ Will be the blue cannot shed/ And your strength will be a vision/ Beyond visibility/ And the gift you have before you/ Will give you new eyes to see.” Doth mine ears detect a rebirth?
So where does this leave us? Again, without having seen it performed, it’s hard to say. We’d probably be safe to conclude that this may not go down as the beginning of a new epoch in Broadway history, or even rock opera history. But it is far from a waste! No, at the very least, Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark is another fascinating curio from a fascinating rock band, one whose restlessness (and recklessness) remains a key part of their charm. They fail big because they are big, both conceptually and aesthetically – there’s something genuinely fearless about the whole enterprise – and we should love them for it. Whether or not this particular experiment warrants the $65 million price-tag is another matter, and one that can’t be addressed until we’ve actually witnessed the spectacle for ourselves. So… anyone want to ‘swing’ for tickets?