From the Sky Down, the new U2 documentary, covers the band’s early ’90s rebirth from massively popular, if slightly derided, Irish cowboy-mystics to massively popular, if slightly begrudgingly respected (by those few, like yours truly, who’d spent the latter half of the ’80s deriding them), international multimedia mavens. Although short on details for the non-fanboy (eg, band members often talk off-camera with no identifying text or image, leaving someone like myself to try to put a face to similar-sounding voices), the film is a heartwarming celebration of rock ‘n roll band brotherhood and the creative process.
In the first 40 minutes of From the Sky Down the band members take themselves to task for pretty much everything my band of rock ‘n roll brothers and I took them down for during the height of The Joshua Tree through Rattle and Hum era: the overly serious, sepia-toned band photos and the perception of rock imperialism and latent expertise concerning American roots music. About the only things they don’t excoriate themselves for during the late-’80s are the loosely tied ponytails and sleeveless shirts with vests. If you’re into that sort of thing, DVR this bad boy and wait until the family’s in bed!
Following Rattle and Hum they feel they’ve lost their way. They play some big New Year’s Eve gig back in Dublin, and although the crowd is shown eating up every Bono prance to the edge of the stage and every echoed Edge guitar part, the band members feel as if their hometown is sneering at them too. They’ve become exactly what they set out to tear down.
Eventually they find their way to Berlin’s Hansa Studio, where Bowie, Eno, and Iggy retreated in the late”70s to reboot their creative circuits. Berlin is gritty and inspiring. Edge has been listening to underground German bands and England’s rave music. His marriage has fallen apart. The other guys in the band are affected by this too; they’re family, man. They care. Bono and Edge are ready to push into new territory, to tear it down and start over. Larry and Adam are reluctant, although they don’t explain why. They are filmed seemingly without their knowledge, in grainy black and white, standing at the edge of docks and on bridges. It’s too cold for sleeveless t-shirts.
Edge has brought a bag full of DAT tapes with him, containing sketches for new songs. The band jams around these sketches for weeks on end. The huge stadium tours of the latter half of the ’80s may have brought the band to this crossroad, but they probably paid for the weeks of jamming in a high-priced studio. Bono sings gobbledygook over the jams, slowly finding the words that fit the spirit of the music. I liked hearing Bono talk about this process. It was very believable and presented a legitimate style of songwriting that we don’t imaging Cole Porter or Irving Berlin having practiced.
Eventually this one jam begins to turn into “Mysterious Ways.” We only get to hear snippets of the countless jams, but Edge and Bono review the original DAT tapes all these years later with a timecode running on the screen, letting us in a little deeper on the creative process. Timecodes are cool! The band feels it’s onto something new.
Then there’s a part in the proto-“Mysterious Ways” jam that turns into what will become the chord progression for “One.” The band spend what seems like a few more weeks analyzing that 4-chord sequence, eventually deciding to break it off from the first song in development and making it its own song. We know how the lyrics would fall into place, and Bono speaks eloquently of the song’s healing powers for the band. He says a really nice thing about how when one man in the band is down they don’t go their separate ways, they wait for him and try to pull him back into the community. “One” addresses this. Larry and Adam clearly are feeling better about the band’s new direction. Although “One” sounds more like their big ’80s hits than anything else they’d been working on, they’re sure “One” has pulled them into the ’90s. Bono begins talking about his Fly persona and the Zoo TV tour is touched on. They didn’t hit me over the head with this detail, but they suggest that the Zoo TV tour changed the face of massive rock band stadium touring, with the multimedia immediacy of U2’s set.
The band members conclude that they allowed some color and light to return to their music during this period, which I will agree are two of the main strengths of Achtung Baby, an album I’ve always felt had more of a ’60s vibe than anything else they’d done. The credits roll over a live, lushly-lighted performance of their most ’60s-sounding song, “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” as if the band and the filmmakers made sure to package one more perspective up my alley and along the lines of how I’ve seen the band’s history.
More focus on the music itself would have been nice. Aside from some timecode scenes with the DAT machine there are no scenes of them actually playing tracks from the album’s final or working tracks. Nevertheless, the film’s strong messages in support of The Power & Glory of Rock and band brotherhood couldn’t have been better to my liking. Now if only they could get Adam to stop wearing those tight, long-sleeved Ed Hardy-style shirts…