February 1, 2012 Volume 26, Number 02
From the Sky Down provides elevating look at U2
By Aaron Epp | ChristianWeek Columnist
The last time Davis Guggenheim made a documentary involving a member of U2, the result was the lacklustre It Might Get Loud.
That film, released in 2009, documented the varied playing styles of three guitaristsU2's The Edge, Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and The White Stripes' Jack White.
When the three guitar greats meet at the end of the film to jam, it's not exciting and you don't learn anything about them. It's just awkward.
What that film should have been called, as a friend of mine once pointed out, is It Might Get Boring.
Thankfully, Guggenheim's latest offering is anything but boring. Now available on DVD and Blu-Ray, From the Sky Down is a 90-minute documentary that explores the making of U2's masterpiece album, Achtung Baby.
If you're a rock fan who happens to be Christian, there's a good chance you're already familiar with the disc.
But for the uninitiated, Achtung Baby was the legendary Irish quartet's seventh studio album. Upon its release in 1991, it debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200 Top Albums chart, spawned five singles, and sold 18 million copies worldwide. It has become one of the most acclaimed records of the 1990s.
Featuring the hit singles "Mysterious Ways" and "One," it's a record full of dark, complicated material that flirts with irony and rock 'n' roll hedonisma marked difference from the band's earnest, heart-on-sleeve '80s material.
Guggenheim explores the making of the album using archival footage from the sessions, as well as interviews with each band member filmed last year.
The album's recording sessions, which began in Berlin shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, were famously fraught with tension. The band almost broke up before composing the hit ballad "One" during an impromptu jam session.
In the film, you can hear the recording from that jam session. It will give you goose bumps to hear how the chord progression that makes up "One" morphs, in a matter of minutes, from a bridge part in a song called "Sick Puppy" (which later became "Mysterious Ways") to the song that it is today.
If there's one drawback to the film, it's that Guggenheim doesn't explore the rest of the material on the album with a similar sort of depth.
Still, if you're interested in knowing the political and cultural climate that made Achtung Baby what it isand if you want to know, as lead singer Bono notes, why Achtung Baby is the reason U2 are still around todayFrom the Sky Down is well worth checking out.
The scenes from last year, of the band reworking Achtung Baby material, are hit and miss, but Manitoba U2 fans will enjoy seeing the footage the band filmed at the Burton Cummings Theatre during its tour stop in Winnipeg this past May.
That so much attention is being paid to Achtung Baby 20 years after its release is ironic, given that "trashy" and "throwaway" were two of the buzzwords the band and producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno tossed around while making the record.
In the end, From the Sky Down does a formidable job of documenting an album that is anything but throwaway.
Aaron Epp is the managing editor of The Uniter, Winnipeg’s weekly urban journal.