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DVD Review: U2′s From the Sky Down

DVD Review: From the Sky Down

By Glenn McDonald

Release Date: Tuesday, Jan. 24 - SRP: $24.98 (Blu-ray); $19.98 (DVD) - Running time: 90 minutes. Purchase here.

Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim has made two of the most acclaimed documentaries of recent years, the 2006 ecological alarm An Inconvenient Truth and 2010′s examination of America’s public schools, Waiting for Superman. He also directed 2008′s underrated music doc It Might Get Loud, profiling guitarists Jimmy Page, Jack White and U2′s The Edge. 

It’s that last film that led to his most recent documentary project, the lively and engaging U2 retrospective From the Sky Down. Ostensibly a commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Achtung Baby, the band’s seminal 1991 album, Sky is much more than that. In the hands of director Guggenheim, a ridiculously skilled filmmaker, the standard rock doc approach deepens into something much more satisfying. 

The film proceeds from two particular points in time – the recording of Achtung Baby in 1990, and the band’s return to Berlin’s Hansa studios last year. U2 specifically commissioned Guggenheim to make this movie, which was included as a packaged DVD in last year’s reissue of Achtung Baby. The director was given free creative rein and unrestricted access to the band’s media archives in Dublin. 

The film features interviews with all four band members and key collaborators like Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, along with solo acoustic performances from Bono and The Edge. To this Guggenheim adds an avalanche of archival photos and video footage, including some revealing outtakes from the band’s 1988 film Rattle and Hum.

Sky is structured around the Achtung Baby album and its anniversary, but the film outlines the entire arc of the band’s career. That’s on purpose, and necessary, because it soon becomes clear that Guggenheim really wants to ask a larger question with the film: How does a band reach such stratospheric levels of artistic and commercial success without splintering apart?

Backlash and Berlin

At the end of the 1980s, U2 was arguably the biggest rock band in the world. The Joshua Tree had sold 25 million copies worldwide, and the band had developed an almost messianic image as the saviors of rock and roll.

“A group is a sort of collective ego,” says producer and longtime U2 ally Eno in one telling interview. “And popularity is the great ruiner of friendships.”

Inevitably, the backlash commenced. The band’s American travelogue film-and-album combo Rattle and Hum was derided by critics as pretentious and bombastic. 

The most revealing passages of From the Sky Down focus on this period. Interviews and discarded footage from the film suggest that, following Rattle and Hum, the band was teetering on the edge of collapse. “This is a dangerous place to be, when your public image is so different than your private reality,” Bono says in a voice-over sequence. 

In October of 1990, the band flew to Berlin to record the record that was to become Achtung Baby. Legend holds that the band’s chartered flight was actually the last airplane to land in the city before the Berlin Wall fell. 

 Enjoy the trailer!

It was here that U2 successfully — though not easily —reinvented themselves for the next chapter of their remarkable career. Drawing on dance music, European club culture and industrial electronica – not to mention the ambient energy of the German reunification happening all around them — the band produced an inarguably great record that sounded like nothing they’d ever done before.

It is within this act of artistic courage and personal resilience that director Guggenheim finds the heart of his film. Using all the tricks of the documentarian’s trade, he tells a story. Sky is an expert sequencing of archival imagery, present-day voice-over interviews and — significantly — creative interstitial animations.

One such animated sequence shows the fate of U2 contemporaries like The Police, The Clash and the many others who didn’t survive superstardom. Images of these bands are visually dissembled in a clever fashion that asks the open question – why didn’t U2 implode as well? (The animations were done by the Brooklyn-based outfit “Awesome+Modest,” who also worked on Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman).

Levels and Loyalty

From the Sky Down is filled with plenty of detail and minutiae that will please hardcore U2 fans, or rock trivia nerds generally. The Achtung Baby track “One,” for instance, was assembled from a discarded bridge of another song, and proved to be the pivotal musical moment that propelled the rest of the record. The album’s biggest U.S. hit, “Mysterious Ways,” was originally titled “Sick Puppy.” The visual template for Bono’s rock star alter ego The Fly was pieced together, the singer says, from “Lou Reed’s sunglasses, Jim Morrison’s pants and Elvis’s hair.”

But even if you’re just a casual fan, Sky can be enjoyed on another level that that’s entirely due to director Guggenheim’ filmmaking strategies. Woven throughout the movie are interview bits and filmed moments that suggest the bonds of personal loyalty among Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. If these four guys hadn’t held tight to one another through their darkest hours, personally and creatively, U2′s career would likely have ended in 1991.

The film has one major weakness, though. Guggenheim uses direct “talking head” interviews sparingly, opting instead for voice-overs paired with old footage or photos. In these sequences, the speaker isn’t identified, and you’re often left wondering who’s doing the talking. Maybe dedicated U2 fans can tell these guys’ voices apart, but I certainly couldn’t. Occasionally, the film gives a visual hints by, say, drawing the eye to a particular figure in a photo. But mostly you’re on your own, and the technique comes off as a recurring, unnecessary distraction.

Extras on the DVD release are meager — a photo gallery, three solo performances of Achtung Baby tracks (Bono on “The Fly” and “So Cruel,” The Edge on “Love is Blindness”), and a press conference excerpt of U2 and Guggenheim saying nice things about each other. But be sure to watch the end credit sequence, which features a  performance by the band at the 2011 Glastonbury Festival. If this performance is any indication, U2 is still in its prime, and having a lot of fun.

As a collaboration between band and filmmaker, From the Sky Down digs deeper than the usual rock doc —it’s a treat to watch anything this well crafted. There are some haters already posting online that the movie is another Rattle and Hum debacle — a commissioned portrait designed to glorify the band. But I disagree. If U2 comes off looking pretty good here — as elder statesmen and dedicated artists — I propose that perhaps they have earned it.

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