It's fitting that the 36th annual Toronto International Film Festival opened with a documentary on U2, a band that's celebrating their 36th year together. As the first TIFF was getting underway, the group that would become U2 was having their first rehearsals in the drummer's parents' kitchen.
Few bands make it to their fourth decade. And as Bono says in From the Sky Down, the past can end up becoming a liability. U2 had long ago come to terms with the fact that they're well into middle age as individuals, as a musical entity and as a multinational corporation. As long as they can move forward, they feel okay back looking back.
From the Sky Down--the title is taken from a Joshua Tree-era sequence where Bono explains how songs are born--is director Davis Guggenheim's exploration of the a dark time in the late 80s and early 90s when U2 had lost their way. Their image became confused, their fans began to wonder and the songs had dried up. This is the story of how they stumbled through that tunnel to emerge bigger than ever.
At its heart, it's a study what it means to be in a band--a clan, as the film stress--and how four guys have managed to hold it together since the time they were teenagers.
The film is bookended by shots of the band preparing to go onstage at Glastonbury in June 2011. And while there's lots of extremely cool vintage pictures and archival footage (complete with plenty of bad hair, even on The Edge), the film captures the bands mediation on that make-or-break point in the U2's existence. Much of the discussion comes from a single day at the Burton Cummings Theatre in Winnipeg on May 28 as U2 rehearsals some Achtung Baby material for their Glastonbury appearance.
Some of my favourite sequences involve DAT playbacks of the earliest Achtung Baby sessions at Hansa Studios in Berlin. After weeks of discouraging dead ends, a jam evolves into a song called "Sick Puppy." As they work on that, we hear in real time--with Bono calling out the chord changes to fit whatever melody is coming into his head--"Sick Puppy" begins to resolve into "Mysterious Ways" over the course of just a few minutes. Later, an aborted bridge for that song becomes the basis of "One," watershed moment not only for the sessions and the album, but for the band itself. Watching that sequence--and hearing how these songs were born--is fascinating, even for non-U2 fans.
I like the way Davis Guggenheim handlers his subjects in his interview. It's obvious that U2 trusts him (thanks, probably, to The Edge's involvement in Guggenheim's brilliant This Might Get Loud from 2008)--yet they don't trust him completely. While the movie covers Edge's wrenchingly sad divorce, it almost completely glosses over Adam Clayton's dark period of alcoholism that nearly got him kicked out of the band.
Other fans might be annoyed at how U2 seems to dismiss The Joshua Tree version of the band as being too serious, to earnest, too black-and-white. Someone else I know knocked the film for editing. "The story arc wasn't fleshed out properly." And in retrospect, he has a point. This is a man who knows about such things.
Even so, I learned quite a bit about a band I thought I knew quite well. If you're a fan, you'll dig it. You'll be surprised at hearing U2 voice in their insecurities and fears. You'll see a very pissed-off Bono melt down after something went wrong on stage. The animated sequences are very clever.
And if you're not and you're forced to watch it, you'll at least come out with a new appreciation of what it takes to be U2.