From the Sky Down: Toronto Review
Director Davis Guggenheim's competent doc follows U2 as they "rethink" their "Achtung Baby" album in a Berlin recording studio.
Revisiting a moment in the career of U2 that many early fans may remember unfondly, From the Sky Down both makes the case for Achtung Baby as a "pivot point" that kept the group from disintegrating and allows viewers to hear some of its much-played singles with fresh ears. Though less obviously cinema-worthy than director Davis Guggenheim's recent "big issue" docs, the film arguably musters enough appeal to justify theatrical release. It certainly holds the interest of viewers who have cared much about any phase in the band's long life.
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Pegged to U2's 2011 Glastonbury performance, which celebrated the 20th anniversary of Achtung Baby, the doc follows them down memory lane to Berlin's Hansa Studios, where they intend to "rethink" the albums songs before Glastonbury while taking time out for interviews with Guggenheim. The director meets elsewhere with the record's sonic masterminds Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Flood, and includes a welcome talk with photographer Anton Corbijn, whose importance to the band's persona rivals that of their producers.
Working quickly through their formative years (and offering brief but amusing glimpses of early live shows), Sky arrives at The Joshua Tree and its reputation-hardening impact: U2's masterpiece was accompanied by stark desert photography, a roots-searching American tour, and a self-important tour doc (Rattle and Hum) that made them look insufferably earnest and pretentious to many music lovers.
Guggenheim never really probes Bono's possible messiah complex (the singer's offstage political activities aren't mentioned here at all), but he does show how "shell-shocked" the group was by both the public's perception and their own failure to perform consistently in the stadiums they were suddenly able to fill.
This burst of soul-searching humanizes the group, likely making onetime fans willing to entertain the rationale for some of the sillier provocations they undertook as a result. ("Let's get a big fuckin' chainsaw and cut down the Joshua Tree," Bono said at the time, before hatching an irony-soaked new popstar persona to counter his earnest image.)
The film's account of the ensuing Achtung Baby sessions is interesting enough to hold non-obsessives' attention: The one scene that initially looks unforgivably navel-gazey, featuring a long DAT playback, turns out to capture the surprise birth of the hit "One" within a meandering improv for another tune.
With its limited chronological focus balanced against insights into the group's dynamics, Sky is neither a comprehensive portrait nor one of those tossed-off featurettes that would be at home only as the filler for a commemorative Achtung Baby boxed set. But some of Guggenheim's efforts to make it more movie-ish -- like his use of now-obligatory animated sequences, which really don't jibe with the band's visual style -- do little to enhance the material, finally giving the impression of a filmmaker who can tell this story competently but isn't quite up to making a lasting film about one of rock history's most successful bands.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production Company: 2011 Documentary Partners
Director: Davis Guggenheim
Producers: Ted Skillman, Belisa Balaban, Davis Guggenheim, Brian Celler
Executive producer: Paul McGuinness
Director of photography: Erich Roland
Music: Michael Brook
Editors: Jay Cassidy, Geraud Brisson
Sales: Mercury Records/Universal Music Group/CAA
No rating, 85 minutes