" Oh no you don’t. I don’t want to be a politician. "
— Raymond Massey as Abe Lincoln, Abe Lincoln in Illinois

MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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“It’s an odd way to live your life as a composer,
building your house from the sky down.”
- Bono

From the Sky Down is a fly-on-the-wall look back at U2’s creative rebirth while making the album Achtung Baby.

How to Dismantle an Atomic Band

Bono at the TIFF world premiere
Bono at the TIFF world premiere

Many musical acts understand the power of reinvention. Madonna, for one, is a makeover master; seemingly with each album she comes up with a new persona, a new sound. At the same time, though, it’s Madonna’s spin on a particular sound. It’s relatively easy to digest and accept the way she changes things up from album to album. It’s reinvention by degrees.

Taken from that point of view, then, perhaps the most dramatic of reinventions came when U2 went searching for a follow-up to the colossal critical and commercial success of The Joshua Tree and the reverberating backlash from Rattle and Hum. What they came up with was the kind of sonic explosion that left some in the lurch; it was tantamount to Bob Dylan plugging in for the first time. And U2 cranked it up to 11.

The ambitions behind U2’s Achtung Baby are already well known to long-time fans, but as presented in From the Sky Down, there is a new appreciation for how uncertain and tenuous the relationships were behind that baby’s birth.

Equally significant, there’s a little bit of insight into the monumental awesomeness of the band’s subsequent ZOO-TV tour. Part of the tension within the band’s ranks related to their moving from arenas to stadiums while on the road; some of that footage and unease was presented in Rattle and Hum, but it gets a closer look here. It would’ve been nice to hear more about this aspect, but their answer to the problems of stadium shows was historic. ZOO-TV as a tour concept itself became a highly influential presentation strategy with its use of video reinforcement to support and augment the musical experience.

Young Blood

In It Might Get Loud director Davis Guggenheim examined the guitar artistry of Jack White, Jimmy Page, and The Edge. The documentary briefly reflected on how dramatically different life could’ve been for Edge and his bandmates while he walked through the hallowed halls of the school where they first met.

This time, Guggenheim focuses strictly on U2 and they tell quite a tale of friendship and dedication that was made stronger by way of their creative struggles in the midst of Europe’s very own changing landscape. The cultural tensions of Berlin in the wake of the collapse of the Berlin Wall became a key ingredient in the band’s Germanic experience.

In Rattle and Hum, U2’s drummer (and founder) Larry Mullen, Jr., joked that the movie they were making was “a musical journey,” albeit an underappreciated journey in which U2 discovered American music. From the Sky Down, on the other hand, is a musical journey in which the band rediscovers themselves and what they’re all about.

They started out as a post-punk band. It was time to chop down the Joshua Tree, revisit their roots and move forward.

Sick Puppy

Labeled as a “Director’s Cut,” this Blu-ray release features the movie as it was presented at the Toronto International Film Festival and subsequently on Showtime. It’s not the senselessly truncated version, trimmed by 10 minutes, included in the Uber Deluxe Achtung Baby 20th Anniversary Edition last fall.

This full cut has great content, including audio from the Melbeach Sessions in which Bono and Edge first toy with a song called Sick Puppy that would ultimately become Mysterious Ways. A little taken aback while hearing their own experimentation from 20 years ago, Bono humorously comments how it is, in fact, not all right, contrary to the song’s refrain.

Edge at the TIFF world premiere
Edge at the TIFF world premiere

But it’s important to understand this isn’t a song-by-song dissection of the inspiration behind the music of Achtung Baby. To look for that information is to miss the point of rock ‘n’ roll; the meaning of songs transcends their initial sources of inspiration.

That said, though, the creation of One takes center stage as chords are toyed with while working on Sick Puppy. The timer on Edge’s DAT player gives a real-time sense of how quickly One came together as a wholly new song. It’s an exhilarating look at the creative process, and a very significant development in the band’s history.

It’s a bitter song about division and tension, but ultimately it’s the song that became the turning point in finding the band’s new musical soul.

Blu-ray Extras

The most exciting supplements are bonus musical tracks performed in Winnipeg and Berlin strictly in front of the cameras; there are no audiences here. On tap are three songs from Achtung Baby: So Cruel (2:42), an acoustic solo by Bono; Love Is Blindness (3:02), an acoustic solo by Edge presented in the same sepia-toned imagery as glimpsed during the documentary’s clips of the song; and The Fly (2:31), an acoustic solo by Bono.

So Cruel is presented in a split-screen layout that isn’t really necessary, particularly the shots of Bono performing with a photographer barely two-feet in front of him. It’s distracting, but Bono’s performance wins out.

As for The Fly, it is hot, hot, hot.

Also on board is a 45-minute press conference with Bono, Edge, and Davis Guggenheim at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s a great addition that fills in some of the blanks and offers some nice insights.

Among the highlights:

  • There’s an interesting thought that Bono brings up: It’s a rather unique thing that bands are a collaborative effort among artists, as opposed to the more solitary work of painters and poets.
  • And there’s also Bono’s comment that men, as they get older, tend to tamp down argument as the male ego calcifies and becomes brittle.
  • Plus one for Edge’s comment on how playing it safe is the scariest thing U2 could do.
  • Plus two for Edge’s very clever statement, “I try to be a perfectionist, but I’m not quite there yet.”
  • Bono’s discussion of self-imposed “crapness”
  • Musical recommendations, including Foster the People’s Torches
  • Bono’s favorites: Miss Sarajevo and Vertigo
  • Bono’s very candid reaction to the movie
  • Other music documentaries and concert films they found influential: The Last Waltz, Don’t Look Back, Stop Making Sense, New York Doll

Rounding out the set is a photo gallery of 17 stills.

Picture and Sound

Given this is a documentary, the use of archival footage at times limits how great the image quality can be. However, the new footage of the band as they return to Berlin and take the stage at Glastonbury is top notch.

The same can be said for the audio, which is available in PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, and DTS-HD Master Audio. Particularly during the new concert footage and the bonus tracks, the audio is absolutely terrific.

Subtitles on the documentary are available in English, French, Spanish, German, Portuguese, and Italian.

How to Use This Disc

Enjoy the feature documentary and the bonus music tracks. Do not miss The Fly. Groupies and Bonoholics would also do themselves a favor by checking out the TIFF press conference.