Sometimes it’s difficult to remember that every documentary has a thesis — a plot, if you will — that guides it, creating a blueprint for the storytelling and editing. When that blueprint is well designed it results in a film that connects with its viewer in a visceral and intimate way, drawing them in to the subject, creating interest, emotion and an experience not to be forgotten. When the blueprint is not well designed it results in an emotional discord that is simply disappointing. From the Sky Down , Davis Guggenheim’s latest film about U2, falls into the latter category: a slightly boring movie made all the more disappointing by moments of sheer brilliance.
From the Sky Down follows U2 as they prepare to perform at the Glastonbury Festival in Pilton, England. It has been 20 years since the release of Achtung Baby , the band’s gamechanging album and accompanying Zoo TV tour, and they took time to look back on the creation of the album. (“There comes a time when it is dysfunctional not to look into the past,” as Bono says.) The film follows them from their humble beginnings as a post-punk group through The Joshua Tree , Rattle and Hum , critical failure, marital problems, growing pains and creative differences to the recording sessions at Berlin’s Hansa Studios that resulted in the iconic album.
The film starts out strong. It has a great rock documentary feel that excites the viewer for what they’re about to see. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for the film to disappoint. In lieu of “talking head” interviews with each member of the group, Guggenheim favours uncredited voiceovers (meaning, someone is talking but you don’t know who), leaving the viewer wondering how what’s being shown and what’s being heard go together. If you’re not intimately familiar with the sound of each member’s voice, you might be likely to assume that only Bono and The Edge are speaking, and they often are.
In fact, overall the film is made for those intimately involved with the career and personalitites of U2. Focusing on producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois and the band’s photographer Anton Corbijn, Guggenheim seems to be attempting to give the viewer the background needed to understand the gravity and importance of the Hansa sessions, but does so unsuccessfully. Instead the film feels lost, unsure of its own direction and selectively choosing what to show and what to hide in order to create the persona of the band that it needs in order to create the sympathy needed for its subjects.
Once the Hansa sessions begin, however, the film takes a really significant turn. It simultaneously begins to show more of the musical process and personality of the members of U2, while drowning the really interesting bits in some mind-numbingly boring history about Berlin and its surrounds. It’s true that the Berlin Wall came down during their recording time there — and the impact of such an event on an artist cannot be discounted — but Guggenheim drowns this opportunity in facts and stories that have little significance to the film. If this section was intended to have a purpose, it needed a better through-line for the viewer. Again, this section seems to be inaccessible to anyone who doesn’t know the band or its history well, and serves more as straight historical documentary than “immense formative moment”.
After 20 minutes about Berlin comes the real heart of the film. Finally getting face time with its subjects, U2’s members listen to the DAT tapes of the original recording sessions. Finding the exact moment when the melody of “One” appears for the first time and seeing the impact it has on each of them is the kind of moment that documentary films were made for. The next 10 minutes of screentime are legitimately brilliant, gooosebump inducing filmmaking. Guggenheim finally finds his feet and edits together a musical sequence that simply should not be missed by anyone with ears, U2 fan or not. While this section of the film lands the emotional blows the rest of the film does not, it still fails tie the film together the way it is intended to.
Whether you are a U2 fan or not, there is no disputing either their place in musical history or their place in our culture. For those who are superfans, it’s entirely possible that this is the intimate look inside a publicly inaccessible band they’ve been waiting for. For the rest of us, it is certainly worth watching on DVD for some great moments with the band, and certainly, the last 10 minutes of musical/filmmaking genius. The rest can be fast-forwarded through if it’s not for you.
From the Sky Down has one remaining screening on Saturday, September 17 at 6:00 pm at the Ryerson Theatre. Check tiff.net/festival for showtimes, details and tickets.