There’s a wonderful harmony to U2 and TIFF coming together with Thursday night’s world premiere of From the Sky Down at Roy Thomson Hall.
The rock band and the film festival are both in their 36th year, both having started, give or take, in 1976 (U2’s exact launch is appropriately punk rough).
This means they’re at the doorstep of middle age, with all the longing for youth, anxiety about aging and eagerness for reinvention this implies.
Look how hard U2’s Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. have laboured to stay current with pop trends while remaining true to themselves, just as TIFF has toiled to expand its global reach while establishing a permanent Toronto base at its new TIFF Bell Lightbox.
But the slip of years brings the gain of wisdom, and TIFF’s programmers pay testament to this in choosing Davis Guggenheim’s From the Sky Down as the first doc to screen as the fest’s opening-night gala.
It’s not strictly an account of the Irish group’s history as one of the great bands in rock, although much is packed into a swift 90 minutes.
The film instead concentrates on lessons learned during the difficult birth of 1991’s Achtung Baby, U2’s seventh album, made when the group members thought it might prove to be their last.
“There’s a moment when it’s dysfunctional not to look at the past,” lead singer Bono says.
Disillusioned with the stadium tours that had paradoxically diminished their music, and disgusted with the rock idols they’d become — “We’d become the enemy,” Bono ruefully recalls — they were uncertain how to step into the 1990s, a time when pop was splintering into factions of rap, dance and metal (and grunge was about to hit).
They were also painfully aware that they’d acquired a reputation of being serious and self-important. They’d recently released a concert film called Rattle & Hum that they’d intended as tribute to their American blues and country influences, but that came across to many as self-aggrandizing — Roger Ebert gave it a big thumbs down.
“The ’80s, I think, suffered a lot from my own intensity,” Bono says.
At the same time, the U2 crew were excited by the new world order represented by the fall of Communism and the breaking of the Berlin Wall. Summoning loyal producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, they convened at Hansa Studio at Berlin, located right near the newly opened Wall at Potsdamer Platz. It was where David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Nick Cave and others had made important albums.
U2 had a room, but didn’t yet know how to fill it. Inspiration was in short supply, and drummer Mullen was feeling paranoid about suggestions that the band try using the drum machines that were all rage.
The turnaround came, as Guggenheim shows, through the writing of “Mysterious Ways,” an ode to the feminine mystique that began as a funky studio jam, led by guitarist The Edge’s wah-wah pedal, a tune the band originally called “Sick Puppy.”
Using digital tapes recovered from the original sessions, supplemented with archival footage, From the Sky Down reveals how U2 not only pulled the song out of thin air, but another one, too.
The tune “One,” another Achtung Baby track, was born out of an interesting chord progression that Lanois heard in the second bridge of “Mysterious Ways.”
These fortuitous discoveries provided the spark the band was looking for. Bono would later describe the experience as “learning to embrace insincerity,” but it was more about embracing uncertainty in a rapidly changing world — which would include the Internet, just over the horizon.
The two songs would later become standout tracks on the album, and sizeable worldwide hits. They were the only two songs completed at Hansa before the band returned to hometown Dublin, but the Berlin vibe of hurtling together into the unknown remained.
The group used similar themes for the rest of the album and for the Zoo TV tour they fashioned around it, using advanced stagecraft that included real East German Trabant cars hoisted above the band.
Out of this cacophony of unease came a symphony of shrewd insights. It’s a feeling that TIFF can certainly identify with, having weathered such storms as money issues, venues changes and the festival-threatening events of 9/11 and SARS.
In some respects, From the Sky Down is almost too self-analytical. The lads really wear the hair shirt over the failure of Rattle & Hum, something that more confident bands like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, say, would have simply laughed off as a bad idea.
Led Zeppelin’s not around anymore, however, and the Stones may never roll again, if Mick and Keith don’t stop feuding.
U2 is still going strong, having just completed its 360 Tour, the most successful rock tour in history. The band is also well into the planning for its next album.
Maybe there’s something to all this introspection, which rockers historically haven’t been all that great at doing — and film festivals either, for that.
In choosing to constantly reexamine and reinvent themselves, U2 and TIFF share a common respect for the past and their own visions for an exciting future.
By Peter Howell