I distinctly remember the release of “Achtung Baby.” I had not lived in Los Angeles for very long at that point, and I was still forming my groups of friends. There was one guy in particular who was every bit the lunatic for music that I was for movies, and once we met at Dave’s Video, where we both worked, we became fast friends. While music has always been an important thing to me, it was almost always as background, as soundtrack to other things, and even the albums that were important to me were albums I soaked up by osmosis more than anything.
But on a night in mid-November, I found myself at Tower Records on Ventura, long gone now, waiting in a big line for the release of the first album in three years from one of my favorite bands. I saw them live for the first time on the “Unforgettable Fire” tour when they played the Omni in Atlanta, and then I saw them again for “Joshua Tree.” I felt like they lost something moving from smaller venues into stadiums, and that second show had none of the intimacy that I found so riveting the first time I saw them. I felt like the bombast of “Rattle & Hum” had led them in a rough direction artistically, and so I was curious to see if they could win me back over as a fan.
We each bought a copy of the CD, then drove way out to a spot above Topanga Canyon Blvd., which my friend knew because he was a life-long citizen of the valley. He called the place “Top Of The World,” and when we got there, I could see why. It was by a radio tower, on top of a mountain, and in one direction, we could see the entire San Fernando Valley. In another direction, we could see downtown LA’s glow. And in another direction, we could see mist hanging over the place where the Pacific Ocean met the land. It was a crisp, clear night, and as we smoked a joint the size of my arm, we listened to “Achtung Baby” for the first time, not talking, just letting each song wash over us.
To this day, it’s one of my favorite experiences with an album ever, and it sounded to me then like pop music from the future, a strange amalgam of influences that took them in a direction I didn’t expect. It also featured more naked emotion than “Rattle & Hum,” and it was right around the time Bono reached the bridge in the middle of “One,” singing, “Love is a temple/Love the higher law/Love is a temple/Love the higher law/You ask me to enter/And then you make me crawl/I can’t keep holding on/To what you’ve got/When all you’ve got is hurt” that I decided I was a U2 fan for life. And not once while I was listening to it then or in the twenty years since did I stop and think “I wonder how they wrote this.”
But when I read that the new documentary “From The Sky Down” deals with that exact subject, I was intrigued. I didn’t realize the album was a turning point within the band, or that they very nearly imploded while working on it. I just heard great music, the strongest collection of songs they’re released so far, and I assumed they just sat down, wrote it, and put it out. While I don’t think Davis Guggenheim’s new documentary is the complete record of that moment, I do think it offers fans a rare glimpse at the process behind U2’s music, and for non-fans, it attempts to set a context in which they can appreciate what it is that U2 accomplished.
It turns out that the feelings I had about “Rattle & Hum” were even more pronounced within the band. What began life as a fun project about exploring America became a difficult moment for them when they realized how it was perceived by critics and audiences. They weren’t sure they enjoyed playing arena shows, and they weren’t sure they had anything left to say. As a result, they took a long time revving up to the making of “Achtung Baby,” and the one big idea they came up with was to head to Germany, newly reunified, and record at the legendary Hansa Studios in Berlin. Their regular collaborators Brian Eno and Flood had both recorded there previously, and it seemed like a great way to remove themselves from the familiar.
Guggenheim sat down with the band in the days leading up to a performance of much of the “Achtung” material at the Glastonbury festival in 2010, and he asked them to speak intimately about the process and the difficulties they faced. I’m guessing this happened as a result of his previous documentary “It Might Get Loud,” where The Edge was one of the guitarists featured. I had a great time with that movie, and I walked into this one ready to see this very private band laid bare. Instead, it feels like there are a few magical moments, but not enough. He spends a lot of time and energy explaining what happened in Germany or the history of U2, and by the time he actually gets to the recording sessions, he really only deals with two songs. We see how frustrated everyone was while trying to crack a song that was originally called “Sick Puppy,” and little by little, we hear it come into focus as “Mysterious Ways.” There are some interesting moments in there, too, and I personally love watching material go through several drafts before it snaps into a shape we recognize.
But the moment that made the entire film worthwhile to me came late in the movie, when we hear another song emerge from the middle of “Sick Puppy.” What begins as a bridge in that song suddenly erupts into something totally different, and using the original DAT recordings, we trace the way they followed that inspiration. This is hair on the back of the neck time for a fan, because you see this simple progression of notes, this hint of a melody, become the song “One,” and realizing that the song about how much you need others was the thing that finally drew them back together as a band… sure, it’s myth-making, but it’s potent, and it’s effective, and I found it rather moving.
There are other details I liked in the film, like the way Bono evolves vocals and lyrics, or learning about the events that led to The Edge writing “Love Is Blindness” while we listen to him perform a haunted solo version of the song. But I wish the film had narrowed its focus to just this one album, because I think it would have been stronger. The material’s obviously there, and the glimpses we get only make it more frustrating that we don’t see more.
Showtime will be airing the film soon, and if you have any interest at all in the band, it’s worth at least a single viewing. I’m sure the more devoted will return to it several times for the bits and pieces of nascent music that we hear, and for the new arrangements that the band put together for Glastonbury. This may not be everything I wanted from the movie, but it’s solid, and the glimpse we get of real creative alchemy is impressive, indeed.
“From The Sky Down” will premiere on Showtime October 29th.