Toronto: The U2 documentary 'From the Sky Down' isn't just good, it's downright transcendent
As the Toronto Film Festival winds down, I want to tell you about one last movie I saw there — a movie that, for me, turned out to be the most surprising one of the festival. I went to a showing of From the Sky Down, a documentary about U2 directed by Davis Guggen- heim, with more or less one thought in my head: Do I really need to see another U2 documentary? There was U2: Rattle and Hum (1988). There was the concert film U2 3D (2008). There was the edition of VH1’s Classic Albums in which the Edge showed you how he layered the guitar sound on that cathedral of jangle “With or Without You” (still my all-time favorite U2 song). Not to mention all the other ways that the band has been chronicled, documented, interviewed, exposed. (There was even that special issue of Vanity Fair edited by Bono!) I would probably have skipped the film entirely were it not for the fact that I’ve greatly enjoyed Davis Guggenheim’s work — An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and Waiting for “Superman” (2010), and also, maybe especially, It Might Get Loud (2009), his marvelous ode to rock & roll guitarists. (If you’ve never seen it, you really should.)
I’m glad I listened to my instincts. From the Sky Down looks back at U2’s career through the lens of the band’s single most dramatic transformational moment: the recording of Achtung Baby in 1990-91. Sure, I already knew that that album — a great one — marked U2’s early-’90s reinvention of itself into, ironically enough, a “rock band.” (That’s when Bono started to wear sunglasses, and also when they exchanged the thumping drive of their rhythms for dance grooves, industrial-funk grooves, soft-rock grooves. Simply put, it was when they started to groove.) But From the Sky Down captures how a moment like that one doesn’t just happen. The band members didn’t simply wake up one day and look at each other and say, “Hey, dudes, let’s rebrand!” In fact, Bono and the Edge, by the end of the ’80s, knew that they had pushed their politics, their sound, their stoic po-faced album covers, their indie-band-gone-arena-rock mode as far as it could go, and that they couldn’t just keep doing it anymore.
But what to do instead? From the Sky Down, without being at all overblown about it, presents the recording of Achtung Baby as a moment when the band was trying, in essence, to get from one side of a canyon to another, only they weren’t at all sure that there was a bridge they could walk across, because only the album they hadn’t made yet could be that bridge. Either they would create an inspired album…or they would implode. The movie is startlingly intimate — and honest — about the fears, the personal and musical tensions, the artistic chaos, the grinding work and discovery that went into the recording of Achtung Baby. It is, quite simply, one of the most transcendent close-up looks at the process of creating rock & roll I’ve ever seen.
To get away from what it had been, U2 decided to go to Berlin — to the fabled Hansa Tonstudio, right over by the Berlin Wall, where David Bowie had recorded Heroes and Iggy Pop (along with Bowie) Lust for Life back in 1977. With its druggy decadence and barbed-wire divisions, Berlin had been an ironically welcoming retreat for certain Western rock stars with a taste for the underground; it was a place to escape, retreat, regroup, redefine. But when U2 arrived there, the Berlin Wall had recently fallen, and the mood of a new Europe was in the air — hope fused with an acrid residue of the old concrete/East Berlin despair. The band literally arrived in the city on the very last flight into East Berlin before the official reunification of Germany. The question was, could U2 reunify itself?
To do so, they had to create and crawl through a lot of musical wreckage. In From the Sky Down, the band members return to that studio, now empty (it looks like a posh mayoral townhouse), and relive what happened there. The early sessions were miserable — nothing really gelled — but then, in an incredible moment, the Edge, almost puckishly amused by the band’s history, takes out an old DAT tape of an early session that produced the riff for “Mysterious Ways.” We hear the basic hook (done with just guitar and drum machine), and then a part of the song that, as Edge explains, ended up getting cut out. He says, Listen to this part! And sure enough, the chords we hear him improvising never did make it into the song. That’s because they’re the early, totally unconscious version of the chords to “One.”
The band takes those chords and starts to play around with them, Bono improvising lyrics and a melody, and before long, they know that they’ve got something. And that it’s big. And beautiful. And new. But still them. Before I saw From the Sky Down, I had a certain image of Bono that, in the movie, he more than lives up to. He’s a seamless contradiction, a mensch and an egomaniac, a sweetheart and an a—hole, full of himself yet totally attuned to others. Yet what I didn’t expect to see is what a compulsive, driven artist he is — a worldly and arrogant rock god who is also a slave to his inner voice. The Edge, who always looks so placid and benign, has his own demons. The movie suggests that he was deeply scarred by the demise of his marriage (which happened just as they were starting to record the album), and there’s a funny moment when Bono talks about how you could always tell when Edge was angry, because he would tune his guitar at ear-splitting volume.
I’m making From the Sky Down sound more like U2’s Let It Be or Some Kind of Monster than it is. The marvelous thing that Guggenheim (pictured, right) does as a director is to turn the recording sessions for Achtung Baby into a spiritual focal point through which he can look at so much else. Like, for instance, what it felt like for U2 to play stadiums (before the era of giant video screens), when they knew, in their hearts, that they couldn’t fill that space — that no one could. (It was the same lesson that the Beatles learned at Shea.) Or a fascinating segment in which the band members analyze, and own up to, the quasi-debacle that was Rattle and Hum — one of the very rare times I can think of when a documentary deconstructs another documentary. Or their explanations, all through the movie, of how they have fused with, fought with, got tired of, and stood by each other. If Achtung Baby had never gotten made, and the band had imploded, rock & roll would have gone on, yet U2, for a long time now, have held a collective cultural dream together by standing tall as perhaps the last band of their era who fully incarnate the majesty, the romance of rock & roll. From the Sky Down is a stirring testament to what it really means when four people in this world can create magical things because they band together.
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