From The Sky Down debuts at 8 p.m Eastern tonight on Showtime.
When U2 released 1991’s Achtung Baby, it was trying to live down the poor reception to 1988’s ego-inflating feature-length documentary Rattle And Hum. Twenty years later, U2 marks the anniversary of Achtung Baby with another ego-inflating feature-length documentary, From The Sky Down. That the band doesn’t notice the irony of this isn’t surprising, but it speaks to the lack of a critical perspective in Davis Guggenheim’s occasionally enlightening but mostly frustrating film chronicling the making of Achtung Baby—one of U2’s best and most popular records—that nobody notes how little this band has changed since the ’80s. Maybe we should just give U2 credit for waiting two decades this time before canonizing itself. But an album as emotionally penetrating as Achtung Baby deserves a documentary that’s comparably incisive, and From The Sky Down doesn’t measure up.
In spite of Guggenheim’s Oscar-winning credentials, From The Sky Down is essentially a 90-minute commercial for next week’s Achtung Baby reissue—which is fine, though you’d think he would’ve put more of the actual album in his film. Only “One” and “Mysterious Ways” are covered with any real depth; other less celebrated (but great) tracks like “Acrobat,” “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World,” and “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)” don’t come up once. Even one of the record’s biggest hits, “Even Better Than The Real Thing,” appears only briefly in the soundtrack, and is never discussed. What From The Sky Down does have time for, however, is an oft-told creation myth that’s part of the narrative U2 has made about its own history. It goes something like this: After the wide acclaim of The Joshua Tree, U2 suffered a horrible backlash with Rattle And Hum, which started out as a low-budget movie but soon ballooned into a big Hollywood production. The press pulverized the band, and sent the members home to lick their wounds at the end of the ’80s. Now at a crossroads as a new decade dawned, U2 doubled down, retreated to Berlin, and radically remade its sound on Achtung Baby. Triumph ensued.
It’s a great story, particularly when recounted by a born raconteur like Bono. But Guggenheim isn’t as good of a storyteller, and the bullshit eventually starts to stink in From The Sky Down. For starters, working in Berlin was a fairly dubious proposition for U2; the band struggled for months to come up with material at Hansa Studios (the fabled birthplace of David Bowie’s classic run of late-’70s albums made with U2 producer Brian Eno) before finally returning home to Ireland to properly finish up the record. In the end, for all the talk about U2 reinventing itself on Achtung Baby, the album was made in the band’s conventional fashion, and ultimately doesn’t sound radically different from U2’s previous output. What’s really different about Achtung Baby is the album cover and music videos, which spruced up U2’s corny jeans-and-cowboy-hats image with funky, futurist European chic. (This gets addressed in the final third of From The Sky Down, when U2 talks about encouraging house photographer Anton Corbijn to add more color to the band’s dour promo shots.)
It’s also questionable whether U2 was really going to break up over early tensions during the Achtung Baby sessions, as Bono has suggested over the years and From The Sky Down tries to awkwardly assert (without spilling too much dirt). Bono recently made similar statements about the present state of the band while promoting From The Sky Down, telling Rolling Stone that “we’d be very pleased to end on [2009’s] No Line On The Horizon” while also claiming that the band’s new songs are “some of our best.” It’s not that Bono is dishonest; he’s a showman with a flair for the dramatic, and he just can’t help himself from turning a normal album cycle into an inspiring comeback story. (He also did it with 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, which came out in the wake of the PopMart debacle.)
In spite of the drubbing U2 took in the press over Rattle And Hum, this was still a highly profitable money machine at the time. The band members might have had hurt feelings—“A group is a collective ego in a sense, and that ego is very easily offended,” Eno intones in Sky—but it’s doubtful that U2 was ever in any real danger of not existing.
The best parts of From The Sky Down captures fleeting snapshots of how this famously private band operates behind the scenes. The film opens as U2 rehearses for its appearance at Britain’s Glastonbury music festival this summer, and if you’re a fan, it’s fun to see Bono shouting into Edge’s ear about when to come in on “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses.” Later, Guggenheim covers the writing and recording of “One” in step-by-step detail. “One” has always been something of a talisman for the band, and the story of how the song’s iconic melody appeared seemingly out of thin air as U2 struggled to come up with new material is an oft-told tale in the band’s lore. Still, From The Sky Down brings new illumination to the song’s birth with archival footage and rehearsal footage, showing how a stray cluster of chords that originally appeared in a bridge for an early version of “Mysterious Ways” became one of U2’s biggest anthems.
If there had more music-based moments like this, and less of Bono going on about how “music is a sacrament” and the “faith that’s necessary to move from one note to another,” From The Sky Down might’ve been an essential epilogue to a classic album. For all the criticisms leveled at Rattle And Hum for what was bad about the movie—chief among them being U2’s supreme dickishness—From The Sky Down could use a little of what’s good about it, namely the live performances and the memorable moments of true insight (unintentional or not) into one of rock’s biggest bands of all time.