I was inspired by Achtung Baby’s 29th anniversary the other day to pen a few words on the LP; something that I didn’t know was coming up on the calendar. It just happened and in the best way, whoosh, the words came out. Meanwhile, a good month or so back, I’d learned of a U2 documentary from 2011 that focused on the making of the same album and I’d duly ordered it from Europe.
I got to sit down with that documentary, From the Sky Down, this weekend. Directed by Davis Guggenheim, I was surprised at how little, relatively, the documentary was about U2 in Germany, trying to reinvent themselves in the period between Rattle and Hum and Achtung Baby. In the end, it seems that this period wasn’t as big as I thought it was, when viewed in the grand scheme of things.
The documentary contains an overview of the band from basically their debut, complete with plenty of footage of them making The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree LPs, then quite a large section on Rattle and Hum; primarily its movie version. While I got a bit trainspotter with all the snippets of Rattle and Hum era footage that wasn’t in the actual film, this section really just serves as background to U2 evolving into “rock’s hottest ticket” in the 80s and then into something a little bit odd.
We’re shown how this was brought into sharp focus for them when they were back in Dublin as 1989 turned into 1990, playing shows for their home crowd and realising they were a very American-looking band, complete with a horn section, and basically a million miles from where they started.
This is where the trip to Hansa Studios in Berlin came into play which I thought the documentary was going to be all about. And while the build up to this is all about how they wanted to do something new/chop down the figurative Joshua Tree and stop being such po-faced young men (their words, I’m not embellishing this), their time in Berlin is defined as being quite cold and disunified as a group. They squeak out a few song ideas and only seem to cheer up a bit when a chord sequence they’re trying to unsuccessfully jam in as a bridge to what would one day become Mysterious Ways, is pulled out into its own track and will one day become the anthem, One. Christmas arrives, and they go home.
Work on Achtung Baby continues back home in Ireland and while there’s no hard breakdown about what was completed in Berlin versus Ireland, I was certainly left with the sense that Berlin created a lot of ideas and sketches, but the songs themselves were really done at home. Oh well, that’s a bubble burst. Berlin remains important, but maybe not as important as I always thought it was in the story.
As a documentary, I found From the Sky Down to be fine. Having access to all the band members talking candidly about both the lead up to making the album, then making the album, while being back in Hansa Studios to boot, was clearly a bit of a coup. To be honest I think it would be hard to stuff up having a few hours footage of them playing tracks and talking in that location about the LP.
Bonus material comes in the form of a few songs performed at Hansa; two by Bono solo, and one by the Edge solo. Two of these are used heavily in the documentary so don’t have any big wow factor, and as solo tracks are interesting little curios, but full band performances would have been preferable.
There’s also an interview with Guggenheim, Bono, and the Edge from the Toronto International Film Festival. I got a little way into it, but it was reasonably standard fare for this kind of event and documentary, so I stopped the disc and didn’t feel like I’d missed anything crucial in the slightest.
If I seem a bit deflated, it’s partly because the documentary is pretty standard fare. It doesn’t really shock or surprise or inspire. And to some degree, it’s because the documentary isn’t what I thought it would be. I thought it would be far more about their time in Berlin and while that’s absolutely covered in the film, it’s just part of the process of making the LP, not the main focus of the documentary.