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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"From the Sky Down", failed film on U2's rebirth

From the Sky Down

Being a die-hard U2 fan, I would choose “Achtung Baby” if I had to pick only one album. It’s not just the incredible songs, but also the amount of ideas behind it. After consulting a lot of material (mainly books, aside the massive amount of unofficial and live recordings) analysing that period in their career, the announcement the band was including a full documentary together with the 20th anniversary reissue of “Achtung Baby” were unbeatable news for me. Then I knew the director was Davis Guggenheim, famous for “An Inconvenient Truth” but also responsible of the outstanding “It Might Get Loud”, adding another factor to be enthusiastic for. I was wrong. Allow me to go part by part to explain myself.

Guggenheim initially puts “Achtung Baby” in context, something that takes him quite a lot of the length of the film. But honestly, its a good recap, reaching back to where U2 were coming from before working on the album, using the band members opinions on an appealing insight. The worldwide breakthrough of “The Joshua Tree” and the frustrating adjustment from playing arenas to stadiums are vividly portrayed (Bono’s anger backstage is particularly revealing). So it is the clash provoked by "Rattle & Hum", their crucified and misinterpreted attempt to explore American roots, putting them on the verge of self-consumption. Quoting Bono, it was time to “go away and dream it all up again”. The next chapter would be “the sound of four men cutting down The Joshua Tree”. The rebirth of U2.

After almost 45 interesting minutes, “From the Sky Down” finally settles in Berlin, where the troubled musical and per­sonal journey of the band was going to take place, being the found­a­tion of what would become “Achtung Baby”. There’s an interesting glimpse of what was going on there, the Berlin Wall coming down, grunge and electronic music was flourishing. The mythical Hansa Studios was the right place to be for a band willing to experiment and transform itself. Everything is ready for an absorbing deconstruction of the making of the album. We have the extensive one-on-one interviews with band members (well, Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton in a more secondary role). We have producers Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno and Flood. We have manager Paul McGuiness. We have photographer Anton Corbijn. Damn it, we even have the old DAT tapes from the rehearsals! But frustratingly enough, director David Guggenheim appears he simply ran out of time.

At Berlin’s Hansa Studios, creative frictions and roadblocks put the members of U2 on the verge of a confrontation of uncertain results. The documentary shows us that, but also how, thanks to the only songs that were completed in Germany, "Mysterious Ways" (originally titled "Sick Puppy") and of course, "One" (created out from a discarded bridge from the former). From the crisis, there was going to result their second masterpiece, “Achtung Baby”. A masterpiece the documentary, surprisingly, neglects. Here goes my list of grievances:
  1. "Achtung Baby" has twelve wonderful songs, not two. Aside from the already mentioned “Mysterious Ways” and “One”, only "The Fly", “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”, “Love is Blindness" and the horrible remixed version of "Even Better than the Real Thing" performed at Glastonbury, occupy some length of the rockumentary. Dublin, where the album was completed is almost ignored. Unjustified and unacceptable.
  2. Lyrics please. These songs are among the most strikingly beautiful and powerful Bono has penned, so why the lack of analysis on them? 
  3. How can you have all three producers of the record (Eno, Lanois and Flood) and not ask them about the construction of the new sound of the band? 
  4. The Fly, the character Bono created as a supposed parody of the frontman (Lou Reed's glasses, Jim Morrison's pants and Elvis' jacket, has a single scene. Mr. MacPhisto is not even mentioned.
  5. Same applies for the Zoo TV tour. All the visual imagery, the creativity of the videos, the live footage. All the ideas behind, zero mention.
  6. So you have Anton Corbijn, but nothing is said about the amazing artwork?
  7. Being an Anniversary celebration, it would have been interesting/appropriate to hear from fellow musicians about the influence/relevance of the album. 
  8. Last but not least, no Zooropa?
Not everything is bad on "From the Sky Down", mainly thanks to the "cast of actors". There are a few revealing and engaging interviews, in particular with Bono. We also have a couple of chances to see the band skills and how do they face the creative process, exposed with an unexpected openness in the rehearsing of “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” and the haunting, poignant performing of "Love is Blindness" by The Edge. That footage, along with the detail in which "Misterious Ways" and "One" are explained and some pre-Achtung Baby" material, makes the documentary worth the watching.

Bono says the album "is the reason we’re still here now” But that sense of dealing with such a crucial work and moment from the band is what we are missing in "From the Sky Down". Initially, after watching it, I thought it wasn't targeted to long-time U2 fans. The amount and seriousness of the misses, together with the few detail on the making of the record puts the film in the verge of irrelevance, at least to anyone who is more than a casual/new fan of the band. But the more I think about it, the more I see this can't be targeted to "newbies" (by the way, welcome to the U2 world, you're going to have a lot of fun) either. Because they won't understand why this album has to be heard, remembered, analysed and celebrated after watching this film. An ok music documentary? Maybe. But not for "Achtung Baby".

Sorry if the review has taken longer than usual. It was an important subject for the writer. 

SCORE: 5,75/10

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