Some thoughts about Davis Guggenheim's fantastic documentary about U2 and the making of ACHTUNG BABY.
There's a common argument among U2 fans over the last 20 years: which is better, 1987's THE JOSHUA TREE or 1991's ACHTUNG BABY? Depending on a number of factors (my mood; which album I'd most recently listened to; the phase of the moon; etc), my answer changes. (Occasionally, it even shifts to ZOOROPA.) What's interesting is that, although the albums were recorded only four years apart, they could not be more different. Where THE JOSHUA TREE is anthemic, important, sincere, ACHTUNG BABY is groovy, sexy, ironic. How did this band get from point A to point B?
Davis Guggenheim's FROM THE SKY DOWN finds U2 recalling the making of ACHTUNG BABY. But more generally, it recalls the crossroads at which the band found itself at the end of the 80s. The movie argues that U2, through the massive success of THE JOSHUA TREE, had taken its music as far as possible, and that (as Bono famously said) the four members would have to go away and "dream it all up again." Part of this was a reaction to the reception to RATTLE AND HUM, an album that is, yes, overwrought; it is not, however, without merit. It's the album that gave the world All I Want Is You, for chrissakes.
(The band offers some reflections on the differences between their intentions with RATTLE AND HUM and the public's perception of it: they were interested in learning about American roots music, but, largely because of the band's sincerity, they came across as trying to TEACH us about it. Side note: BB King saying to Bono "You mighty young to be writin' such heavy lyrics!" in When Love Comes to Town still makes me chuckle.)
The other fascinating argument that FROM THE SKY DOWN makes is that U2 found itself trapped as much by its image as by its music. It's interesting to hear Bono express frustration at Anton Corbijn's iconic photos from THE JOSHUA TREE; in Bono's explanation, these photos show only the band's serious side, not the goofier, fun-loving side. This made me laugh: which of THE JOSHUA TREE's songs would goofier photos best represent? Running to Stand Still? Mothers of the Disappeared?
So if the band were to survive into the 90s, what would they sound like? It seems like Bono and The Edge had a lot of ideas, but not really the ability to articulate them. And if they didn't know where they were going, how could they convince Larry and Adam to follow them? I'm reminded of a line from 1993's Zooropa: "And I have no compass, and I have no map. And I have no reason, no reason to get back." Uncertainty can indeed be a guiding light, though it can be incredibly frustrating as well. (Note to self: there's another essay to be written about the theme of uncertainty in Bono's lyrics.)
I found most of FROM THE SKY DOWN to be tremendously entertaining - there is some nice archival footage of the band that I hadn't seen before. But there is one section of the movie that is breath-taking, extraordinary: the birth of One. We're listening to master tapes of the band working on a song then called Sick Puppy - a song that later became Mysterious Ways. As The Edge is experimenting with chords for a new bridge, they all realize there is something special happening. Bono starts scatting a potential melody for lyrics, urgently asks for an acoustic guitar ("at the speed of light!"), and right before our eyes and ears, One is born. As we listen to the decades old recording, Guggenheim shows us the tape's time code: we're watching a masterpiece being created in real time. It's like listening to the (apocryphal?) tape of Keith Richards waking up, recording the riff of Satisfaction, and going back to sleep.
Now that 20 years have passed, it's interesting to see U2 going thru similar process every decade. ACHTUNG BABY led to groovy, fun, underrated ZOOROPA, which led to 1997's thematically heavy POP. (It strikes me now that one of the reasons why I initially found POP to be such an unsatisfying album was its almost complete lack of humor. The image the band was going for, with the album marketing and the video for Discotheque and all the trappings of the Pop Mart tour, was definitely one of rock-star consumerist excess, and yet that wasn't really reflected in the album itself. With the exception of Discotheque, obviously, and maybe The Playboy Mansion, there is nothing light, nothing ironic in the album. There was such a disconnect between the music and the image that it took me about 12 years to actually realize there is some spectacular music on POP, particularly Gone and Please.)
The mixed/negative reaction to POP, like that to RATTLE AND HUM almost a decade earlier, led the band to dream it all up again, and they rediscovered their soul in 2000's ALL THAT YOU CAN'T LEAVE BEHIND. I struggled with 2004's HOW TO DISMANTLE AN ATOMIC BOMB, but loved its follow-up, 2009's NO LINE ON THE HORIZON. But what's next? Now that the ultra-successful 360 tour has finally wrapped, there have been grumblings from those within and those near U2 that they may be at the end of the road. Bono in particular has made comments reflecting the relative lack of success of the band's most recent album, NO LINE ON THE HORIZON: is U2 still relevant in today's radio market? My response: who cares? Have you heard the shit that gets played on the radio these days? (Also, get off my lawn.) NO LINE ON THE HORIZON was, for me, the band's best album since ACHTUNG BABY. It pushed the band's sound into new and interesting directions (especially on songs like the title track and Unknown Caller and Breathe), and allowed Bono some interesting lyrical experiments. It left me excited to hear where the band would head next, and I really hope they continue making music.
FROM THE SKY DOWN premiers in Canada on Superchannel tomorrow night, Nov 19. It is also available now as part of the super-mega-ultra ACHTUNG BABY anniversary reissue, and will be available on blu-ray and DVD in December. It would make the perfect stocking stuffer for the U2 fan in your life. (Hint, hint.)
Even Better Than The Real Thing. I'm still not entirely sure how this was filmed...
One (with Mary J. Blige). As great as the original is, this version is a stunner.