U2’s Bono and the Edge and David Letterman joined forces again at the Wednesday night premiere of the Disney+ special “A Sort of Homecoming,” with the band members explaining that they needed the former late-night host to add some irreverence to the Morgan Neville-directed documentary, set to begin streaming March 17.
Said Bono to the audience at downtown L.A.’s Orpheum Theatre, “The thing that Dave brought — I don’t know if you agree, Edge — is that he brought the comedy to the tragedy. And you know, there’s a reason why Willie Shakespeare wrote that form. And our music is just better with him around, I thought. Musically, it was better just by him being in the room, kind of taking the piss out of it.”
The Edge tried to beat Letterman at his own game at the post-premiere Q&A. Asked why they got Letterman involved, the guitarist said, “Well, being honest, the first idea was Jay Leno.” As the laughter died down, the Edge offered further faux-explanation for why that wouldn’t have worked out: “He’s into cars, and I drive an Audi, so… Bono drives, believe it or not, a Tesla.”
Bono added that “we’ve known Dave for many years, and he was foolish enough once to invite us to play for an entire week on ‘The Late Show.’ And I don’t know if we outstayed our welcome, but it was very brave of him. Also, if your two good-looking members have gone AWOL” — he was referring to the MIA Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton — “you bring in some really great storytellers. So here we have two great storytellers,” he noted, in the form of Letterman and Neville.
Rather than taking too much piss out, Letterman is quite reverent toward U2’s music and the band members throughout most of the special, which has him interviewing the singer and guitarist in Dublin, although he finds many occasions to crack wise. Maybe the best joke comes during an impromptu gig that Bono and the Edge do with some acoustic musicians to reinvent their songs in Dublin’s relatively tiny Ambassador Theatre. Between songs, he takes time out between songs to ask if they know who’s headlining across town at Aviva Stadium. The two frontmen appear curious. “Adam and Larry,” Letterman announces.
The feature-length documentary — full title: “Bono & The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming, with Dave Letterman” — is intended as a companion piece to the album U2 has coming out, also on March 17, “Songs of Surrender.” That collection has the band re-recording 40 previously released songs in more stripped-down format, mostly with Bono and the Edge, but with Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. joining in on “very gentle bass” and a standup drum kit, respectively, on some tracks.
Those recording sessions, mostly from 2021, were not filmed, so that was one reason why the new doc had Neville and Letterman filming fresh performances and interviews with Bono and the Edge this past December. An end credit dedicated to the two members who couldn’t or opted not to participate in the film says, “A special thanks to Adam and Larry for letting us go rogue on this one.”
Said Letterman in the Q&A, “Well, let me wax, or perhaps wane… I’ve been in television and this sort of thing since I was 18, and at this stage in my life to have been a part of this… tonight’s the first time I’ve seen it, and what a lovely piece of work. And I’m so pleased, so proud. I don’t know how it happened exactly, I don’t know why it happened, but this kind of makes the first 35 years of being in television well worth the effort.” (He did not attempt to reconcile his math.)
One of the surprising occurrences in the film is that Bono and the Edge started writing a tune about Letterman, “Forty Foot Man,” on a whim, to illustrate how songs come about and develop. The number is based — extremely loosely based — on some footage that shows Letterman visiting a seaside swimming spot in Dublin, long known as the Forty Foot, where locals take a dip in winter as well as summer, and having the cold waves unexpectedly wash over his feet. Initially, the singer and guitar play and strum the incomplete song over an audio memo on Edge’s phone. But in a surprise turn near the end of the film, it’s revealed that they’ve finished a full studio version of “Forty Foot Man”… as Letterman is seen returning to the sea and swimming out into the ocean.
As discussion of the tongue-in-cheek new song continued, Bono and the Edge sang a snippet of the number — their only “performance” at the premiere — as the Orpheum crowd clapped along.
Neville talked about that denouement, before he was joined on stage by the other participants. “It’s not apparent in the film, but I will tell this story because it’s amazing,” said the director. “The last sequence of Dave jumping in the Forty Foot — we did not film that on our shoot. We filmed everything else in December. Over Christmas, Dave called and said, ‘I think I need to jump in the water.’ Because Bono had said that they were actually gonna finish the song; they said, ‘Well, we need to do this.’ And so Dave flew back for a day and jumped in.”
“I had this idea of ‘Forty Foot Man’,” said Bono, and “Edge was up late working on the soundtrack. We put it together and we started writing it really quickly and then it could have gone away. But you see, that’s the thing about the Edge: he will go into the studio when other people go down to the pub.”
Said Letterman, “Show of hands, how many have had a world-famous rock and roll band…? When we were in the library and this was presented to me, I was stunned. I just thought, it’s 3 o’clock in the morning, they’re writing a song about me, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m glad that’s over.’ And then it turned out, oh no, it’s not over. It’s a real song. I can’t tell you what a lovely gesture that has been for me.”
Over the course of the film, Letterman not only interviews the Edge and Bono but some random and not-so-random Dublin residents about how the city and country have changed since U2 was getting its start at the end of the ’70s. Much of the focus is on how the religious and political divisions in Ireland have abated over 45 years, but Letterman even spends some time with a drag queen who was brought on stage by Bono at a Dublin concert to celebrate the country becoming more inclusive. When the interviewee gets flirty and Letterman alludes to heart palpitations, the drag queen jokes about how much play she’ll get out of him having passed on in her flat.
“I had a sense of this at the airport, but it was confirmed the longer I stayed in Dublin,” Letterman said at the premiere. “In Dublin, I am so much more popular than U2. I think that’s my biggest takeaway.”
More earnestly, he said, “Morgan did a remarkable job, and as I watched it, I love that the star of this film is the music.”
Bono told the Orpheum audience that Letterman “wanted to make some sense of our band, but as Freud famously said, the one race that might be impervious to psychoanalysis are the Irish. … I think for us it was great to see our city and our country through his eyes — through your eyes — and see our country grow and I suppose see ourselves reach near-adulthood, I suppose.”
Speaking about the new “Songs of Surrender” album, the Edge said, “The fun thing about this project is no one knew about it. No one expected it. So when we started, we were free to just enjoy the process and it was very joyful and I think without any pressure of expectation, we could lose ourselves in the songs. Watching Bono sing and get back in touch with these songs was an amazing experience for me.”
“There’s a sort of selfish part of this project,” said Bono, “where we wanted to hear our own songs again, almost as if for the first time. And the question of could they survive without the firepower of a big old rock band at full force, we didn’t know the answer to that.” On the album, “Larry was playing a standup kit… Adam a sort of very gentle bass on the recordings. But we couldn’t film them. So we brought in some students and then these gifted Irish musicians, folk musicians” — including Glen Hansard, who is interviewed in the doc as well as providing backup in music recorded at the Ambassador and in pub sequences. “Hearing the songs through their ears was a whole other experience.
“And the song ‘Invisible’ — the lyric I wrote about rejecting my father’s name, I only realized recently how heavy that is…. And hearing that song as a folk song… It’s not on any U2 album,” he noted, referring to its origins as a free download (and eventually a hidden bonus track on a deluxe edition of “Songs of Innocence”). “Now I can’t imagine a life about that song. So the project gave us back our songs…
Considerable time is devoted in the doc to the song “Sunday Bloody Sunday” — its origins and also a fresh performance that portrays the old lyrics being crossed out as Bono sings new lyrics. “Interestingly enough,” Bono explained in the Q&A, when he was making his contribution to the song Edge started, “I was on honeymoon, in Jamaica, and the honeymoon album is called ‘War’… But Ali and I were staying in Bob Marley’s place, and I still hear Bob Marley when we’re singing ‘the ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday.’ And I created it as a folk song. I mean, there’s disco songs that are now folk songs. Any song that will last becomes a folk song if you’re lucky, but you only find out really when you break it down. And some of the lyrics, I was embarrassed by, actually, but I got to finish them on this project.”
At least, he added, the remade songs are “finished for this week.” And songs, he said, “are our boss. You know, they tell us what to do. You hear people talk about songs as their children, but they’re not. They’re your parents. They tell you what to do, they tell you how to look, what to wear, who to work with. And if you’re smart, you do what they tell you to do.”
At the Orpheum premiere, Disney+ execs were well-represented, as well as members of three production teams that worked on the documentary — Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s Imagine Documentaries, Neville’s Tremolo Productions, and Letterman’s Worldwide Pants.
The screening and Q&A were followed by a significant tented reception put up in parking lots across the alley from the historic theater’s rear entrance. European comfort fare was served, include meat pies with an option of real meat or the veggie equivalent, leading many attendees to wonder aloud why Impossible-beef pies can’t actually become a thing in L.A.