In some ways even better than the real thing, that being U2’s pivotal LP “Achtung Baby” from 20 years ago, Davis Guggenheim’s making-of-the-album docu “From the Sky Down” takes an enjoyably novel approach to rock stars known for their fine-tuned products, focusing on the awkwardly embryonic growth of artistic and interpersonal elements that resulted in a classic disc. Six months in production, the pic comes off as the loose-limbed opposite of U2’s debut docu, 1988’s hagiographic “Rattle and Hum,” whose failure, the band members admit, sent them into a productively painful shock. Showtime’s Oct. 29 cablecast might get loud.
Given Guggenheim’s chief reputation as the activist auteur of social-problem pics (“An Inconvenient Truth,” “Waiting for ‘Superman'”), “From the Sky Down” — the first docu ever to open the Toronto Film Festival — surprises somewhat by never once acknowledging the well-publicized humanitarian efforts of bandleader Bono. Rather, the filmmaker portrays each of U2’s four members — including guitarist the Edge, bass player Adam Clayton, and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. — as creative entities whose clashing sensibilities circa 1991 threatened to dissolve the group before miraculously coalescing into the likes of “One,” described by Bono as a “bittersweet song about disunity.”
For the film, exec produced by the band’s manager, Paul McGuinness, U2 has opened up not only its vaults — resulting in an array of evocative archival video and sludgy audio recordings — but also its collectively guarded memories of a pre-“Achtung” period in which the Berlin Wall’s collapse helped inspire a creatively liberated album while emphasizing the emotional barriers the musicians had erected around themselves.
Even know-it-all fans will find some of the film’s disclosures revelatory. The Edge admits that the disc-closing “Love Is Blindness” sprang inelegantly from the pain of his marital divorce; Mullen recounts his reluctance to share sonic space with a drum machine; Clayton confesses that he, too, didn’t warm initially to the band’s experimental turn; and Bono grants that his newly stadium-filling supergroup had fallen far short of its heroes in the Clash. Guggenheim illustrates the point through late-’80s footage that captures the ponytailed rocker in Madonna mode, having a backstage hissy fit over a stagehand’s missed cue.
On the flip side, the U2 frontman also appears freer and funnier than he often does, at one point acknowledging that the key elements of his early ’90s “Fly” persona — wraparound shades, sideburns, leather pants, etc. — could’ve come packaged in a drugstore rock-star kit sold for $19.95. In fact, “Achtung Baby” itself was assembled from spare parts, with dance-club music, aggro-rock and the Edge’s trademark ringing guitar all ending up in the final mix.
“From the Sky Down” conveys a similarly cobbled-together feel, its vintage footage and talking-head interviews combined with animated scenes — most memorably one in which legendary but lesser band members appear to fall like cheap cardboard cutouts — and contempo images of U2 revisiting its past in conversation and performance. The docu culminates in an astonishing rehearsal take of “One” that, in keeping with the themes of both pic and song, accentuates the initial fumbling of individual parts before coming together beautifully.
Tech-wise, the film’s 2011 images sparkle, while its sound recording and mixing are unsurprisingly excellent.