U2: From the Sky Down
From the Sky Down
Music documentaries get more viable and interesting as more and more renowned film directors grab their chance to prove themselves in the genre. Apart from ordinary documentaries that only provide biographical data or sketches, some of them serve as a modern day visual novels, delivering emotionally enriching experiences and storytelling. Music history has proven interesting and fertile ground. Twenty years ago the music world saw major changes in the same manner as when punk music in its heyday swept the music world in the late 1970s. 1991 was a great year for music that brought landmark releases spawning a myriad of genres. Among the many watershed records that were released that yearwhich included albums such as Nirvana's Nevermind (DGC, 1991). Metallica's Black Album (Universal, 1991) and Massive Attack's Blue Lines (Virgin records, 1991), to name but a few, was U2's Achtung Baby (Island, 1991). It was a refreshingly personal record that was deeper and denser than any of the band's previous releases whilebeing, at the same time, a musical consolidation. The making of this record, its impact on music as well as many crucial facts regarding the band's endurance, are the subject of the documentary by Academy Award -winning director Davis Guggenheim, From the Sky Down .
The film traces U2's story, starting from the circumstances that brought the band to stardom, beginning with the seminal The Joshua Tree (Island, 1987) and the creative dire straits and alienation post-Rattle and Hum (Island, 1988) that eventually and simultaneously forced and inspired this collective to reinvent itself. The result was Achtung Baby, hailed as a masterpiece, which wholeheartedly embraced uncertainty. It is tempting to argue that confusion is one of its strengths. At the time of its release, the record was precisely the right move for a band whose enormous success gloriously reaffirmed the potential of arena rock 'n' roll, but it also exacted a toll on the band. Rattle and Hum was conceived as a throwaway record and sold in the millions, but was mostly savaged by the press as pretentious in its attempt to place the band in the company of greats such as guitarists B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix, and singers Bob Dylan and Billie Holiday. Although it had great performances, the film actually portrayed the band members as humorless and distanced. By contrast, Achtung Baby possessed a broader human palette and sonic clarity that paved the way for U2's surprisingly unpretentious return.
The film starts and ends with performance at Glastonbury in 2011, where the set list began with several songs from this record, and throughout the film (apart from returning to Hansa studios in Berlin), the musicians are recorded as they rehearse the songs and reminisce about the personal struggles that informed them. The storytelling is excellent, consisting of individual conversations with the main protagonists about each step they undertook and the decisions they made. Besides the band, Daniel Lanois (the record's primary producer) shares his thoughts, although too briefly, as well as the band's second producer, Brian Eno. Enothe band's theoretical beacon and guiding lightuses his proverbial wit and wisdom to describe what makes a rock band tick, what drives it and its gang-like nature.
Subjects such as making a band, the preservation of a band, its us-against-them nature, are reexamined, and how this attitude of a gang, linked by attitude and emotion, has helped U2 to pass over treacherous waters and land in safe harbor. In a way, this shows how a certain band dares to be great in a unique way. It shows that band-based rock music is founded on its members pushing through each others' weaknesses and mischief to get to the gold. So, when those foundations are shaken, the music suffers in a big way. The painstakingly long recording sessions U2 endured in the making of this important record helped its bandmembers redefine their interpersonal relationships and, consequently, the music. Achtung Baby was U2's conscious effort to be both a band and not a brand.
One of the film's main strengths is its balance between the stories told, the number of people that appear, and the plethora of old and new footage, including clever usage of animation. Twenty years after its release, U2, unlike many other bands, is an example of a durable creative partnership and business venture, demonstrating why forming a band might seem like a good idea. Unlike many great bands that have trail blazed through musical history, U2 has sustained its vitality over the years by avoiding the usual trappings that have caused the disbanding of so many great groups and, in an unobtrusive manner, the film shows just why that is so. With From the Sky Down, Guggenheim really elevates music documentary to a new level and, just like the album, is a wonderful experience to behold.