Judge Erich Asperschlager is one, but he's not the same.
"You have to reject one expression of the band first before you can get to the next expression, and in between, you have nothing. You have to risk it all."
Spend more than ten minutes surfing the Internet and you'll probably find someone complaining about U2 and its outspoken frontman, Bono. People complain about his ego, his sunglasses, even his tireless work on behalf of debt relief and AIDS research. I've never understood the hate (especially the charity work), but then again, I am that most anti-hipster of creatures: a U2 fan.
The band isn't new to criticism. In fact, this latest round is tame compared to the drubbing they took after the release of the black and white tour documentary Rattle and Hum. Coming off the explosive success of The Joshua Tree album, it must have been a shock. Instead of a love letter to American music, critics accused U2 of making a love letter to themselves. It was called pretentious, uninteresting, and worse. In fairness to the band, they weren't entirely happy with the film either. They saw how lifeless and uncomfortable they looked in front of the camera. Part of that discomfort came from constantly being filmed, the rest from their difficulty adjusting to the size of the venues they were playing. It was a time of unrest and transition for the band, captured on film and shown to audiences who found it difficult to sympathize with the rich rockers.
I've always liked Rattle and Hum, warts and all. It's got some great live performances. I like it even more because the frustration of making it inspired the band's next project, my favorite U2 album, Achtung Baby. On the heels of that record's 20th anniversary, we get the story of its tumultuous creation, told by the band itself, in the new documentary U2: From the Sky Down, directed by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman). The film was included in the $150 Achtung Baby "Super Deluxe Edition" reissue, and is available now as a standalone DVD.
Bookended by U2's 2011 appearance at the Glastonbury Festival (its first), U2: From the Sky Down takes the band back to Hansa Studios in Berlin, where Achtung Baby was recorded. Making the album was a long and painful process, made even harder as the band struggled to make sense of their music after the failure of Rattle and Hum. Two very successful decades later, the band members—Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr., and Adam Clayton—are able to look back and honestly assess what went wrong. They became, in Bono's words, "the enemy" of all their early ideals. They were left with two options: break up or start again by, as Bono puts it, "cut[ting] down the Joshua Tree."
Hansa Studios in Berlin had been used by artists like David Bowie and Iggy Pop. For U2, it was more than a change of scenery. It brought them into the heart of the electronic and dance music Bono and The Edge wanted to explore. Adam and Larry weren't so keen on the new direction, and the combination of growing pains as they stretched their musical boundaries and the conflicting ideas about where they should go caused a lot of tension. That tension was finally broken during the writing and recording process for a song called "Sick Puppy," later renamed "Mysterious Ways."
U2: From the Sky Down's musical selection is more snippets than full songs, including early DAT recordings. Bono and The Edge listen to most of these messy takes and shake their heads. That changes during one take of "Sick Puppy," when The Edge plays a new bridge—Am D F G—the instantly recognizable backbone of the song "One." It gave the band focus and energized them to finish the rest of the album. The creation of this seminal song is one of the best sequences of the film, a beam of light breaking through the clouds that hung heavy over the band.
Along with a history of the band in Berlin, U2: From the Sky Down looks at their songwriting process. From rehearsals of Achtung songs for the Glastonbury concert to the original Hansa recordings, the music comes out of the free flow of ideas. Starting with a rough chord structure, they experiment until they find the song. Perhaps the most surprising revelation is Bono's improvisational approach to lyrics and melody. Before he's written a word, he sings, starting with gibberish, until he finds "the vocabulary of the music" as Bono puts it, "building…from the sky down."
To hear the band talk about their musical process in grand, sometimes religious terms might come across as the height of pretension, but it makes sense to us U2 fans. As we watch the songs take form through experimentation, discussion, and music theory, it's hard to fault the band for the occasional grand proclamation.
My only criticism of U2: From the Sky Down is that it is too short. It spends a long time building to the creation of "One." After that, it moves quickly through the recording process to the Zoo TV tour, never pausing to talk about most of the album's other songs. Guggenheim sees the story as essentially finished once U2 gets its groove back. It fits the narrative of struggle and rebirth, but doesn't make for a comprehensive making-of documentary.
Since we were provided a test pressing of the DVD for review, I can't pass final judgment on the audio-visuals. What I saw looked and sounded good enough, though, to recommend as-is. The 2011 interview footage is crisp and clean, and while the quality of the archival footage varies, everything is artfully presented, mixing talking heads with live performances, still photos, and occasional animated interludes. Audio comes in both PCM Stereo (on by default) and surround mixes. There's not a lot of difference between the two; they both deliver music and dialogue with power.
U2: From the Sky Down on DVD is lighter on bonus features than its Blu-ray counterpart. The bulk of the extras are three new acoustic solo performances: two with Bono ("So Cruel" and "The Fly") and one with The Edge ("Love is Blindness"). There's also a four-minute highlight reel from a Q&A that Bono, The Edge, and Guggenheim recorded at the Toronto Film Festival (if you want the full 45 minutes, you'll have to get the Blu-ray), and a photo gallery of 17 behind-the-scenes shots.
With Achtung Baby, U2 abandoned the earnest poetry of The Joshua Tree and reinvented their music and themselves. That change is best embodied in Bono's Zoo TV alter ego, The Fly. Wrapped in leather and giant sunglasses, the persona was a calculated dig against those who accused the band of megalomania. But there's a fine line between satire and sincerity. For better and worse, the latter half of U2's career as capital-R "Rock Stars" began here. If you're looking for Guggenheim to skewer the band for their hubris, their wealth, or Bono's insistence on wearing sunglasses indoors, you won't find it here. The band is forthcoming about their troubles in the early '90s, but U2: From the Sky Down is a safe place for their confessions. It's not a hard-hitting documentary. It's an honest and insightful film, made for U2 fans, that celebrates the 20th anniversary of a groundbreaking album.
It's all right, it's all right, it's all right. Not Guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Island Records
• Bonus Tracks
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