on December 21, 2011
"It's an odd place to live your life, as an artist: building from the sky down." - Bono
The film opens with the band about to go onstage at Glastonbury on June 24th, 2010 (My birthday, incidentally.) They opened that show by playing a song from Achtung Baby: Even Better Than The Real Thing.
I remember being a young U2 fanatic when Rattle and Hum came out. I loved the album. I was proud of "my" band. Not having an older brother, or anyone to introduce me to pre-1980 music, it WAS my introduction to B.B. King, to the Blues, to American music. I did not understand that my experience was unusual. I heard God Part II before I'd ever heard Lennon's God. U2's versions of Helter Skelter and All Along the Watchtower were the FIRST versions I'd ever heard of those songs.
I remember watching the Siskel and Ebert review on television as they trashed that film. They said something like, "It wouldn't make them any new fans." I thought they were ridiculous. I didn't understand the reaction which people who were a little older than I was were having, and who knew more about the music of the 1960s and 1970s. And, Rattle and Hum WAS a good movie. I remember playing it for friends in college and converting a few new U2 fans to the fold.
But, as great as Rattle and Hum might have been, it did have a rough reaction from the critics and it's only now in From The Sky Down that we see how much this upset the band. U2 were never in it just for the money, or the fame, or to get laid, or any of the usual reasons. They were and are artists and they wanted to create art which would be respected by their peers and the industry. The critical reaction in 1989 kinda caused a nervous breakdown for them. They had to "go away and dream it all up again." Which meant they had to reinvent the band. They had to drastically change their sound.
Around this time I remember a Prince interview. He was upset that U2 had gotten the Grammy instead of Sign of the Times. He said something to the effect that he could do "folk music" like The Joshua Tree. He pointed to his song, "The Cross." But, U2 could never do anything like "Housequake."
U2 then set about learning how to make music that you could dance to. They got funky, and shockingly, they did it well. Achtung Baby is considered by most to be one of the two best albums they've yet written. (The Joshua Tree is the other.) This film is about the band pausing and taking a moment twenty years later to look back at how they made this drastic transformation and managed to take the same four man line-up and basically form a brand new band.
There is a cut of this movie which is included in the 2011 Super and Uber re-releases of Achtung Baby. However, that cut is shorter. There are some great scenes missing, including one where they talk about the reasons almost all of their peers DID break up, while U2 only managed to stay together because they wrote Achtung Baby.
There aren't a lot of bonus features on the disc, but they're very strong. The solo performance of Love is Blindness by The Edge will blow you away. Bono attempts solo versions of both So Cruel and The Fly which are.... both crap and great.
Which brings me to the interview. They also included an extended interview with the band, which is perhaps more touching than the film itself. At the end, Bono talks a little bit about where the band is today. Almost breaking into tears he shares that he feels the band is in a similar crisis now to the one they were in in 1990. They need to reinvent themselves again. He knows they can continue to sell out arenas and make tonnes of money, but can they get their new songs played on the radio? It reminded me of their performance on Saturday Night Live a couple of years ago. During the performance of Moment of Surrender, he improvises lyrics at the end about not wanting to be left alone in the song. Get on Your Boots had failed as a single - a massive slap in their face. There were plans to release a second album at the end of 2009. They announced that it would be called "Songs of Ascent" and that the lead single would be "Every Breaking Wave." But the failure of No Line on the Horizon to launch a hit single seems to have scared the band back into their shell. The band seems to be reeling now from a critical stumble in the same way they did back in 1989. Why are they opening new shows by playing 20 year old songs? It has to hurt them that the new material doesn't grab the audience now the way a 20 year-old single does.
"These days we're a better band. We've learned our craft and therein lies a huge danger, which is there's a giant chasm between the very good and the great. And U2 right now has a danger of surrendering to the very good. In those times, 20 years ago and indeed before that we were crap AND great. There wasn't much very good. And I think that - I was just reminded of how crap we were watching the film and I just found it really awful. And yet, it was a self-imposed crapness, like we were trying to make music that we didn't understand and the band seems to do its best work when its in that environment and when it gets comfortable it's not as interesting. And so, there may be some more crap coming up." - Bono
I would have liked to give the film 5 stars, but I am going to subtract 1 star because I feel like there is material missing from the Bonus features which belonged there. First of all, their project seems to have been to get together to figure out how to play all the old songs again. Yes, about half of the album is still played every night when U2 is on tour, but songs like So Cruel, Love is Blindness, Acrobat, and Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World were left behind. I feel like they wanted to include new performances of these songs, but chickened out.
Also, I had a bootleg LP record long long ago of U2 writing some songs on the beach in the late 80s. They were working on an acoustic version of "She's Gonna Blow Your House Down" and another one called "We Almost Made it This Time." They actually include VIDEO of that session in the movie - but it's cut and very limited. This would have been the place to give us that video as a bonus feature. It was beautiful and showed the band's creative process in a wonderful way. I worry if that footage will ever be completely released now? The songs aren't on any album.
It's a film which I think even non-U2 fans will enjoy. The band are intelligent and they have a lot to say about the nature of art and being creative partners. There is a plot and a narrative, and I think it speaks as much to where the band is now as it does to where they were 20 years ago. They've come full circle and they find themselves again at a place where they have to be reborn or die. REM died recently and quietly, 12 years or so after they ran out of ideas. U2 is honest and clear enough to admit to us that they are afraid now of falling into that same trap.
As Zimmerman said, "He not busy being born is busy dying."
As someone who is old enough to have followed the many highs and lows in the career of Irish superband U2, I didn't expect much in the way of new insight from the documentary "From the Sky Down." Assembled by esteemed filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, an Oscar winner for "An Inconvenient Truth," the film is a portrait of the group as they prepare to revisit songs from the classic "Achtung Baby." Just to be clear, while there is a lot of musical material, this is NOT a filmed concert. It is, perhaps, most successful as a peek at the artistic process. With a generous use of archival footage and candid interviews with the band members and their intimates, it is a surprisingly thoughtful look at a legendary group as they reflect on their past successes and public foibles. It is fascinating to contrast the group at various points within their career journey and to see just what drives them to endure. Oftentimes Bono, in particular, has come across to me as somewhat brash and even pretentious--here, he and the others exhibit refreshing candor and relatability. And the film itself is a contemplative meditation on the band's legacy.
"From the Sky Down" stays firmly rooted within the primary quartet of Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullin Jr. They provide the principle interviews and source material (with some of their business partners offering contextual support). The film deals with a bit of history from U2's initial skyrocket success to the inevitable backlash from the ill-conceived "Rattle and Hum" feature to their artistic reemergence with "Achtung Baby." Conceived in Germany as the Berlin Wall was coming down, it is clear that the band feels that this is their seminal work. Indeed, the modern portion of the film centers around the band as they ready for the twentieth anniversary of that album. In fact, they specifically commissioned this film from Guggenheim as a record of the occasion.
Easily, the most fascinating portion of the movie is how it really allows a bird's eye view of the artistic process. In the eighties footage, we see how the band really worked together and how the album itself evolved through time. The creation of the song "One," in particular, is fantastically rendered. Similarly, the modern day portion shows a parallel process at work. Through the course of both practice and recording sessions, the band really worked together to create the best product possible. It's refreshing to see the disparate personalities putting ego aside (and they do have big egos) to make something special. At the end of the day, I think "From The Sky Down" is quite successful in achieving its goals. If you are a U2 fan, this is an invaluable addition to their body of work. Even if you don't know or love them, though, this offers up plenty of insight and introspection about surviving and thriving in the musical landscape.
The Bonus Material includes three songs performed by U2: "So Cruel," "Love Is Blindness" and "The Fly." In addition, Guggenheim, Bono and The Edge field a few questions at the film's premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. KGHarris, 12/11.
My one complaint with U2 ... for a very long time ... was the lack of what they've done here in this film. Something close and personal. Something intimate and revealing - outside of a song. Something that explains, from them, what the hell we've all been engaged in, headlong, for so damn long.
There are a group of people on this planet that whenever they hear the word U2, they cringe. It's hard to get around or dismiss these people and for someone like me who is a serious fan, it's hard to understand why and difficult to grasp how all that happened. If you watch this documentary ... and pay close attention ... all becomes clear.
The film opens with a narration from Bono, interspersed with snippets from Edge, Larry and Adam as well as moments from everyone else close to the center of this universe. Brian Eno, Paul McGuinness, Anton Corbijn. It picks up - exactly - where the last real documentary footage they remastered and released left off. Most that read this likely bought the remastered releases which included The Unforgettable Fire and had their experience of making that album at Slane Castle in the eighties.
The first revelation: They struggled with putting on big shows, being consistent and worrying that they didn't have enough material to keep it going.
Wow. I have a lot of the concert recordings of them through the eighties and I never once thought that at all. Your fears are truly your own, no matter who you are. That's probably revelation number two, but that was mine, for me, maybe not a universal one.
The conversation steers towards Rattle & Hum and it's sad to hear all the reflections on it. Honestly. These four lads from Dublin invested everything they had financially to make a small film about them being on the road and their journey through America. The concerts after the Joshua Tree release, for them, "were like a roller coaster," Edge says. This is the point where the world met up with them and instead of listening to the music and just hearing the album, which still stands up and is timeless, people became distracted by the commentary in the press, which somehow and unfortunately became louder. They were scoriated in the press for Rattle & Hum and after putting so much into it, it killed them or rather, almost killed them.
The world, Roger Ebert, Rolling Stone, everyone - saw the effort and them as Megalomaniacs and it would be something that was heavy, painful and difficult to shake. What's more painful is finding this out after watching that musical road movie so many times, so many nights, so many Sunday afternoons and loving it every time - even if it just played quietly in the background. I had heard that, but I never shared the opinion. I just saw it as a modern day version of Kerouac's On The Road.
That public souring was a shadow that they couldn't shake due to the nature of how the commentary was shaped on 24 hour Live MTV for the next few years which caused them a lot of distress. MTV was still favouring their tiring 'Hair Bands' (Bon Jovi, Ratt, Poison) on the Weekends with Headbanger's Ball and then groveled at the feet of the North-Western Grunge Sound Monday through Friday (Nirvana, Pearl Jam). U2 didn't fit that -- at all -- and so they systematically slammed them endlessly, bolstering that particular public opinion - which honestly was never really true to begin with.
There is an odd parallel here with what happened at this point with U2 and what happened with Weezer during their Pinkerton release [close to same time frame]. They both went over the edge with something too personal, something too raw, something too good for mass consumption and the critics just walked all over it and threw it back in their faces as if none of it mattered. For the record, it mattered a lot and it mattered to a lot of people over time, but mostly it very much mattered to them.
For the haters, nothing happened here in this period that had changed. Let's be honest. One might say that during the first 5 albums U2 slowly embraced more and more of the American spirit and made it theirs. They just kept evolving. When you ask some people they always say the same thing and it's a variation of this:
"I like old U2 before they sold out and changed. When they were a Rock band they kicked ass, something happened after Joshua Tree. Their early albums were all that mattered."
These sentences are like the jigsaw pieces that fall out of people's mouths and unfortunately from a set of people old enough who still control radio station playlists which is why we're always subjected to the same 5 U2 songs on FM every time they get play. It's an ongoing shame.
I was in New York in April of 2011 and I was stunned at the amount of U2 I heard on the radio and the variety of the songs that played over the airwaves. I heard `Love is Blindness' on some station driving out to Jersey and `Please' the next day. For me, it was incredible. I mentioned this dilemma to my friend but he just ignored me because, one, he wasn't aware of the West-Coast bias, and two, I often go off on tangents about history, U2, or the history of U2 -- in no discernible order.
This film is magic from the beginning to the end and will give you a viewpoint of U2 no matter what you feel about these guys. There's absolutely no politics in this, no soapboxing, nothing of that magnitude. It's an internal struggle and "each man for himself" as Bono says, which is underlined as a betrayal to the concept of a band. They were on the verge of breaking up and getting over the loud ringing critical tone of hate that came at them from the failure of Rattle & Hum continuously. All of that began the birth of The Fly, MacPhisto, the pushing back to save themselves.
MacPhisto really was Bono's psychological reaction to what he likely perceived as a massive failure and ultimate rejection. It's hard not to watch that footage in Sydney of 'Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car' and NOT see that something was up.
Stopping here. It's odd to write the words: "The failure of Rattle & Hum," Jesus that's absurd. "The failure of Pinkerton." An album that Rolling Stone later wrote was one of the great top ten concept albums ever. I'm curious now what they say about Rattle & Hum. The irony and the next revelation, which isn't the first time one might here it, is:
"You can't listen to the critics."
But possibly, there's some serious untruth in that. In dealing with the pain of what had happened, they came up with `One' which then changed everything. The album came from that moment and everything after followed.
Haters love to mention the album Pop, but that's only because they haven't listened to it from beginning to end. They should called the damn thing 'Hymnal' because that's honestly what that thing is. It's like Bach's collections of Chorales. Everything points back to God in one manner or another and that's not a crime or a bad thing. Some people could use a little more faith, even if it's just in themselves.
In modern mass-consumed music, everyone gets eaten alive, people implode, check out, blow it, say no more. Rarely do people survive it in this manner shown here. Often bands ditch members and continue, note Foreigner's problems and Lou Gramm. Note Creedence Clearwater Revival who are still fighting with lawyers to this day. Something has to be said about the intense desire to show up to work and keep going, keep making music and pushing forward. Nothing is ever perfect, but nothing would've been a bitterer pill to swallow for sure. If you can't find something good, you're probably just not looking.
"You have to reject one expression of the band, first, before you get to the next expression - and in between, you have nothing. You have to risk it all." -- Bono
on January 29, 2012
Any lifelong U2 fan already knows the story behind this--how U2 had maxed out by this time and had a bad taste in their mouth (along with critical backlash) after "Rattle n' Hum." How the band traveled to Berlin hoping that change of scenery would create a spark, which it really didn't except for one song. Turns out that song was enough.
One would believe that this has footage from the Berlin sessions but it really doesn't--it has the band re-telling the story now while showing shots of the Berlin sessions (you'll recognize them from the sleeve of Achtung Baby). In fact, when they finally get to the footage they DO have of the Achtung Baby sessions, that appears to be from when they'd already returned to Ireland. They do have, however, DATs from back then of early attempts on songs like "Mysterious Ways" which was really nothing but a bass line and a drum loop--and a mess--in the part they play.
This is more appropriately called the band giving an oral history of the sessions back then, on-camera.
The big revelation here--SPOILER ALERT STOP READING NOW IF YOU DON'T WANT A SURPRISE BLOWN--is that "One" was originally intended to be a middle section for what became "Mysterious Ways." So in other words, arguably their most iconic song from that record was a discarded part of another song. Now, that I did NOT know.
There's some funny footage of them demonstrating that for all their stone-faced piety leading up to that period, they knew it was an image that wasn't accurate and even joked about it. There's also some cool footage of them rehearsing (now) and Edge doing a killer acoustic version of the song "Love is Blindness," which I never liked on record but this version is cool.
The movie's beautifully filmed and as I said, for U2 completists--I doubt the casual fan would be much interested in what's being presented here. For those of us who've seen everything, there's still some surprises. They also seem astutely aware of why Rattle n' Hum alienated not just critics but fans and, after seeing this film, one could almost argue that that failure was crucial in them reinventing themselves and changing their sound in such an epic way.
For U2 fans, dare I say it, it almost might be a film too premature at this stage, in that, sure: Achtung was awesome and a rebirth of the band, but it was arguably the last classic album they did. They've had some good ones since then and some just okay ones (by their standards, which I consider higher) but whatever they did 25 years ago as depicted here they sorely need to do again, as they've been pretty much coasting that past two or three years, not even putting out an album.
on March 22, 2012
I`m a huge U2 fan and I admit, I love the more technical end of record production more than most so when I first viewed From the Sky Down, I was looking forward to learning about the different recording techniques U2 and producers Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Flood used to create this record.
When the record was first released, I remember running home and putting it in the CD player. I had to double check the credits to make sure I had the correct band. After all, the name of the record said U2 on it but this surely did not sound like them until I heard Bonos menacing voice, "I`m ready, I`m ready for the laughing gas, I`m ready, I`m ready for whats next..."
Even the lyrics sounded like another band. The band was coming from another place and I liked it! This was the angle I wanted to learn more about with this documentary. I wanted to learn more about where Bono was coming from lyrically, and where the band was coming from sonically but to no avail.
The first half of this documentary talks about the band prior to the release of this record... their rise to success, the success of the Joshua Tree, the disappointment of Rattle and Hum and then the band departing after the tour to go their own separate ways.
The second half of the documentary is about the band coming together in Germany and realizing they were no longer the same band and that everyone was on their own page. This is the frustrating part of the documentary because even though the band talks about the song "One" and how it unified the band, there is hardly any mention of the other songs on this album, let alone any talk about the production side of it.
Simply put, "From The Sky Down" is a shallow look into a deep record.
Even the extras which are oftentimes more interesting than the actual film are lacking here. There are 3 performances from The Edge and Bono, both performing solo. Its nice but its not necessary, I would have preferred more info on the album itself.
on August 12, 2013
First of all, my interest in U2 is cursory. Back in the 80s/90s, I nearly wore out my cassette tapes of Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, but outside of those two albums, it's been hit or miss for me. In fact, the "Pop" album somewhat sealed my distrust for any new U2 releases, and so I've missed out on the past 15 years. But thanks to this video, I'm re-exploring my roots, so to speak. (Incidentally, after viewing this, I've picked up all the CDs/DVDs from the last 15 years, and happy to say that I hear a return to true form).
I was expecting something completely different. I'm familiar with the "Classic Albums" series, which basically shows a band or some of its members sitting in the control room with a mixing board and noodling around with the mix and discussing how it all came together. There's a video in this series for Joshua Tree, and it is interesting, despite not covering all the tracks on the album. I was expecting something similar but for Achtung Baby. I was totally wrong.
What Guggenheim did here, to me, was nothing short of genius. Here's how the documentary works: the context for the film is NOT the Achtung Baby album, as most people think. Rather, it is the 360 tour from 2011, which essentially was U2 touring their classic hits, primarily centered around 1991's Achtung Baby. The documentary explores WHY these songs are significant to THE BAND, and HOW they prepared for the tour. The focal point of the documentary is the rehearsal sessions before the tour (and we get a glimpse of the tour during the end credits). All other information, footage, etc. should be viewed within this context or the documentary may not make a whole lot of sense. One other thing to note: U2 wasn't just going to tour classic songs for the 360 tour, they were going to re-think many of these songs, rearrange them, and present them anew. To do this effectively, many of the original demo tapes for the Achtung Baby sessions were brought to rehearsal so that the band could remember what the backdrop had been for each song in order to strip out the production lining and get at the core emotion of each song, and then re-package the song for the tour. The extras on the Bluray edition contain some of these "refreshed takes" which are vastly different from the studio album versions, including: The Fly (sung by Bono alone with his acoustic guitar, complete with kicking over chairs in the process), Love is Blindness (sung by The Edge with his acoustic guitar, all alone with no accompaniment), etc. etc.
Guggenheim isn't too presumptuous either. If you're new to U2, keeping the things in mind I said above is all you need. You will see a short history of their rise to the top of the charts, how they did it, and how it affected them. You will NOT see a whole lot of what they went through AFTER 1991's Achtung Baby. The archive footage is well-preserved. The cadence and pacing of the film is near perfect, and I can't recall a portion that was boring or unwarranted.
Guggenheim's illustration of the artistic rift between band members was well-done. It's quite clear that Larry Mullen was not entirely on board with the concept of introducing German dance club beats and drum machines into the album. He is, after all, a very vivid drummer with little regard for proper form (think Keith Moon but with a bit more restraint). Drum machines aren't as "loose" or as improvisational as a live drummer, at least in the early 1990s. One magical and unforgettable moment of the documentary was the flash of joy across Mullen's face when banging out the beat to "Zoo Station," as he finally started to connect with the album's direction and concept. Another notable portion of the film was the archive footage showing how the band extracted the second bridge section from the demo version of "Mysterious Ways" to come up with the basic chord progression for "One." (The lyrics, which are some of U2's most passionate/powerful, came AFTER the music, surprisingly). All along, Guggenheim's use of simple animation, dubbed over with the band's narrative move the documentary along fluidly. There are many moments like these that were captured on film during the recording sessions and which are displayed with real impact, and never over the top.
Don't hesitate to watch this film. This is the standard for how a "rockumentary" ought to be made.
on November 8, 2012
I love music documentaries and when I heard that this one would focus on my favorite band, I knew I had to check it out. I've been a diehard U2 follower for years and it's always exciting to get insights into their work and how they create the timeless music that only they can make. From the Sky Down is a fascinating look into the making of Achtung Baby, arguably the band's most popular and beloved album.
There's a lot to love here. The interviews and insights from the band members are wonderful and you can tell they're passionate about what they do, always striving to find new sounds and ideas to push them forward. It's intriguing to watch the evolution of songs like "Mysterious Ways" and "One", shedding new light on these beloved tunes. There are also some great performances, including a beautiful solo rendition of "Love is Blindness" by The Edge and a rare rehearsal of "So Cruel" by the entire band. Hearing the band struggle to find new footing and having to work together to create this masterpiece is a story that most U2 fans know; here you really get a better sense of how it played out.
However, my only real complaint is that I feel this film could have explored these songs even deeper. Only a handful of Achtung Baby songs are mentioned and the first half of the film focuses on what happened with Rattle and Hum (which I thought was brilliant). I understand that they had to set up how the band got to Achtung Baby but I felt the album didn't get as much screen time as I would have hoped, especially since the film is branded as a documentary about the making of the record. What's in the film is great; I just would have liked to see a bit more depth on Achtung Baby itself.
This is an informative and fun look at the best band on the planet. Fans and newcomers alike are in for a treat.
on March 2, 2012
I am usually leery about buying U2 documentaries. but this one is the real deal. it's not some amateur compilation of concert and interview clips. this has original material mixed with some clips from other footage. the result is a great product. highly recommend it!
on June 10, 2014
...if only to hear how the riff for "One" came about, and hear the actual jam session where the chord progression evolved and they said "Eureka!" (Edge has every single tape they've ever recorded during studio sessions and you get to hear a lot of osongs when they were just a few snippets before becoming real.. very cool). Contains much less of the Bono self-importance one usually gets in similar U2 videos. This is well worth it for anyone who is into U2, interested in 'behind the music' stuff in general, or has an interest in how recording happens and evolves. I liked it.
on May 20, 2013
Achtung baby is my all time favorite U2 album. I consider it to be of great influence in what would later became my musical taste. At that time I was only 12 and I remember as if it were yesterday hearing Misterious ways and finding out for the first time what the best band in the world sounded like. I bought this 'cause I was eager to know as much details of the making of this album as I could, but the director went to a different direction, I guess, by showing more how the album redefine the band to what it is until know.