A true 180-degree change of direction that is met with both critical and fan acclaim in mostly an anomaly in the music industry. Artists have often made departures resulting in a fresh, enlivening and new sound, but rarely is it met with open arms. I could speak to you all day about the brilliance of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, but the truth is most people would prefer to hear Born to Run. I personally feel Mick Jagger's last few solo releases (1993-2004) found Jagger to reveal more within the albums than he ever would in an autobiography but the truth is few yearn to see him without Keith Richards at his side. Change is a condition of our lives we grapple with the most. Many would rather stay in a job or marriage where they are dejected than go through a short term ache which will lead to greener pastures. Many people are scared to try new food thinking they'll loathe it when in reality they're just as likely to take pleasure in it. In many ways, music is the toughest nut to crack. Most people gravitate towards the music they enjoyed during their teen years and what they hear on the radio. Getting someone to seek out new acts is tough and asking them to listen closer to more experimental works by their favorite artists is even tougher which is what makes the success of U2's 1991 masterpiece Achtung Baby all that much more of an anomaly.
Before U2, the only band to truly manage a commercially and artistic 180-change of direction was the Beatles. The Rolling Stones were able to do it to a lesser extent with Some Girls, but in my opinion, that record's strengths are more of a result of the songs. Obviously, David Bowie transformed several times in his career, but he never quite reached worldwide success at the level of the Beatles or U2. Achtung Baby was not a record that should have worked and even if it did, why did anyone think the public would accept it? Back in October of 1991 when I first heard "The Fly" I was perplexed. The sound was unlike anything U2 had attempted before and I wasn't sure I liked it. When I heard the album a month later, I wasn't sold. There were some sonically remarkable moments, but I wasn't sure I would be listening to the record a year down the road, let alone twenty years. History has told a different tale as it is largely viewed as one of the decade's ten greatest albums and the furthermost changes of direction in the history of music. To celebrate the film's twentieth anniversary there was an elaborate ten-disc reissue of the album (6 CD's and 4 DVD's) with a documentary by director Davis Guggenheim being potentially the most revealing snapshot of the band ever. Two decades later it's evident that U2 did indeed come through on the other side and managed the impossible, they reinvented themselves without sacrificing who they were in the process. In the new documentary film From the Sky Down we learn that in order to achieve this, the band had to forget everything they knew and almost lost the band in the process.
Director Davis Guggenheim took a high level approach with the film infusing it with enough minutiae to appease fanatics but reigns it in just enough to appeal to a informal viewer who will most likely find the story exhilarating. If the film has one flaw, it's that it's entirely too short. This is a case where an extended director's cut would have been most welcomed. Comprised of interviews conducted in 2011 alongside vintage footage shot by Rattle and Hum director Phil Joanou in 1987, we see a band at the top of the world, but who was falling apart. Shifting between the past and the present gives a visceral view into their working process. Most bands once they attain a certain amount of celebrity rest on their laurels. It's not that they don't care about their art, but they may not obsess over it as much as they previously had. However, U2 is not like most bands. First and foremost, they're a band in the truest sense of the word. Bono may be out front and a voracious spokesperson but as one can see from the interviews and video of the band during this period, all four members are essential to U2. Bono's ego does not go unchecked and the Edge may create a kaleidoscope of colors but its drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and bassist Adam Clayton who keep the group from veering too far off course. It's the fact that these four musicians, shepherded by their Svengali manager Paul McGuiness that keeps the band not just grounded but capable of making three undisputed masterpieces in three separate decades (The Joshua Tree in 1987, Achtung Baby in 1991 and All That You Can't Leave Behind in 2000).
As they prepped for their 2011 tour, U2 began to re-learn and rehearse several of the songs from Achtung Baby. We see them rehearse and relearn many of the songs and this should be boring, but it's rather fascinating as we're a fly-in-the-wall during a rehearsal. We see a partial performance of the incandescent "So Cruel", which was performed a measly five times on the 1992 tour. You begin to understand their need for perfection. I only wish more of these performances had been included. Aside from new interviews one of the key items that give the film historical focus is the footage Guggenheim was given access to. Snippets of clips from 1980-81 are startling to see because it's a reminder as to why they've become the biggest band in the world. We next see their 1984 footage of them recording The Unforgettable Fire but the most revelatory vintage footage comes in the form of outtakes from Rattle and Hum in 1987. Some of this has leaked out on bootleg in the past and I can say the footage is pristine and makes one wonder when these outtakes will find an official release. Surprisingly, while some of the footage is fascinating (like the jam in Austin, Texas of the band with Stevie Ray Vaughn and T Bone Burnett) but it's the modern day interviews paired with scenes of a band grasping their sudden success and inner doubt. On playing stadiums in 1987, Adam Clayton said "We would have this over-riding feeling of doom and gloom, that we just weren't good enough". Granted, the band has more than two decades of insight to come to these conclusions, but it's still a revelatory comment. It's evident that Rattle and Hum could have been a much more fascinating and better received film if they had let us into more than their musical minds and hearts. This works to Guggenheim's favor as this footage feels fresh and new and doesn't so much show a band brash as it reflect one struggling with uncertainty.
There was a deep dissection as to how big they had become. Footage of their 12/31/89 show from Dublin closes out 30-minutes of the decade that had preceded it and leads into the Manchester underground rhythms that would influence Achtung Baby and it's sibling Zooropa.. Discussing their transformation is also a fascinating look at their relationship with Anton Corbijn. "We always felt that the photographs should look like the material. Anton was not photographing us, he was photographing our songs". While this information may be well known to the followers of U2, I still found it wholly absorbing to see the steps they took to make this transformation a reality. However, no matter how big the concert stage or how bright the album sleeve, none of it would have mattered without the music. In 1990 the band set-up in Hansa Studios in Berlin expecting the magic of the city and studio to infect them with greatness; except greatness proved to be late to the party. It wasn't until a 30-minute jam session for what became "Mysterious Ways" where things intensified. In the middle of an extended jam session, the band pulled out a snippet and began to work on the song separately. That song was "One" and the film unfolds this discovery in a goose-bump inducing scene you will never forget. You literally hear the birth of one of the defining songs of the last quarter century.
The breadth of Guggenheim's film is wider than your typical music documentary. Many of those films take place inside a bubble where the director and artist never leave. However, by hiring an Oscar winning documentarian, the scope of the film is grander, more mysterious and earnest than an undemanding documentary would normally be. As someone who lives for minutiae, I long for further access to the band's vaults and moment-by-moment video and recordings of everything tied to this period. However, the U2 fans that largely dismissed the film late last year when it appeared on Showtime missed the point. The band's purpose was to take a larger audience into the chaos of their lives while revealing hidden treasures for the first time. The footage from the Rattle and Hum period is eye opening as it shows the band at their most innocent and their footage from 1991 shows not just a band but four friends who together overcame the obstacles in front of them to create a masterpiece. From the Sky Down was included in the ten-disc edition of Achtung Baby released last October in DVD format only. The Blu-ray was released this past January separately. In a head-scratching move, the Blu-ray has access to exclusive material not available on the ten-disc set. The Blu-ray includes three acoustic performances of "The Fly", "So Cruel" and "Love is Blindness". "So Cruel" features Bono solo and the rarely performed song (only five plays to date) is eye-opening, as is the partial full-band performance within the film. "Love is Blindness" is sung by the Edge and these two performances are so intensely stunning you can almost forgive the double-dip. The last extra of note, and one that could not have been included on the DVD, is a forty-five minute press conference with Bono, the Edge and Davis Guggenheim from the Toronto Film Festival. This is no ordinary interview as Bono sprinkles his dialogue with very rich tidbits of U2's past, their present and their future. It's a wholly engrossing interview with the band and is a worthy addition to the Blu-ray.
In the end, U2 achieved more than anyone could have imagined with Achtung Baby. They didn't just create a weighty record that sold millions of copies and influenced a whole generation of artists but its release allowed the band to reinvent themselves. Above all else what matters more than the music was the friendships that endured. Most artists are so driven in their need for success that they forget that it was the artistry that brought them to this job. More importantly, U2 is a rare band where all four members equally care about what the other thinks and believes. While some may take issue with the film for not going deeper and more detailed, I think this serves the emotional tone better. From the Sky Down isn't so much about the making of Achtung Baby as it is about four friends who managed against all odds to retain their friendship and conquer the world not once, but twice while doing it as a democracy. Their strength as a foursome is greater than any individual member and their ability to maintain their friendships, respect and love for one another is their greatest legacy of all and From the Sky Down reflects this beautifully.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
U2 - From the Sky Down
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