Thursday, October 27, 2011

It Might Get Dull: A Rock Doc With Not Enough Oomph

The four members of U2, who pledged loyalty to each other while still Dublin teenagers in the late 1970s, collectively see “music as a sacrament.” According to lead singer Bono, the rekindling of that unity is “why we’re still here.” It’s evident in From the Sky Down – a documentary about the Irish rockers premiering on Showtime this weekend – that they almost lost their togetherness 20 years ago. The band was coming apart at the seams in the process of creating Achtung Baby, which went on to mark a show-biz turnaround for the musicians (and will be reissued this month for the anniversary.)

The requisite archival footage is plentiful, often allowing a glimpse of the quartet’s abundant hairstyles from days of yore. Producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, an engineer named Flood, and U2‘s favorite photographer, Anton Corbijn, are some of the talking heads on hand to offer reminiscences about the November 1991 release. They witnessed the conflict-ridden 1990 Berlin recording sessions, where Bono and guitarist The Edge versus drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and bass player Adam Clayton engaged in tense debates over what direction to take next. A possible breakup loomed.

That battle is the subject of this cinematic profile by David Guggenheim, whose It Might Get Loud explores three generations of guitar gods (including The Edge, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and the White Stripes’ Jack White) with much more depth. The 2008 non-fiction effort conveys a literal sense of sacrament, in fact, through images that suggest the holy hush of the woods as The Edge explains how his realization about forests provided a lesson on achieving clarity.

Arboreal concepts may be key to understanding these guys. When the best-selling Achtung Baby came out, the group quipped that it was essentially “four men chopping down the Joshua Tree,” referring to the title of their breakthrough 1987 album. They apparently wanted to dispel the aura of self-importance and pretentiousness that came across in the widely panned doc that followed, 1988’s Rattle and Hum by Phil Joanou. “We looked like a big, overblown rock band running amok,” Bono concedes to Guggenheim on camera. “We’d lost our post-punk Irishness.” A new Europe was being born after the Berlin Wall’s demise. U2 decided to “shift away from Americana,” specifically the stark, roots-seeking sensibility behind The Joshua Tree.

U2 today: left to right, Clayton, the Edge, Bono and Mullen

To jazz up their subsequent Zoo TV Tour in 1992, U2’s reinvention incorporated some of the glitz fuelling of the art form during that era. With the intention of brandishing ironic self-deprecation, Bono adopted several alter egos thanks to “rock star visuals.” Among them, The Fly had him wearing the kind of sunglasses associated with Lou Reed, the form-fitting pants preferred by Jim Morrison and an Elvis Presleyish jacket – and sporting a modified version of the King’s famous pompadour. All of those iconic figures, by the way: Americans!

The tour’s stage setting was elaborate and each show involved a complicated multimedia production. The sound had changed, as well: More dance-friendly and electronic. “We were moving away from our serious, black-and-white, gloomy phase,” Clayton notes two decades later in From the Sky Down. “We did brighten up a bit.” Some great tunes emerged: “Mysterious Ways:” “So Cruel” and “One,” which heralded the fact that U2 was at last able to reconnect to their original loyalties. “We found a spiritual identity,” says Clayton. “Berlin was a baptism by fire.” And Bono acknowledges “we are much closer now,” especially once he became aware that his mates had “suffered from my intensity.”

Director Davis Guggenheim
Despite such revelations, the Guggenheim effort seems not nearly as incisive as other recent rock docs about a particular album. Think of the challenges faced by Bruce Springsteen, as unearthed in Thom Zimney’s The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town – described in an August 2011 Critics at Large review by my colleague Andrew Dupuis as opening “a window into how The Boss shrugged off guaranteed rock stardom and fought valiantly, passionately and perhaps insanely for what he believed in.”

Maybe the disappointments of From the Sky Down are partly due to the perception that, even for an ardent U2 fan like myself, the film is periodically quite self-congratulatory. The title (borrowed from a quote that introduces the idea of divine intervention in shaping their music) ought to have been a less egocentric From the Bottom Up. And, many years before the Bono-Edge Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark fiasco on Broadway, what about the bloated theatrical aftermath of Achtung Baby, which in my estimation tended to marginalize the album’s terrific content? Call me crazy but I don’t think a tight-pants homage to Jim Morrison re-establishes the “post-punk Irishness” Bono had wished for.

Guggenheim infused each of his previous projects – the environment-themed An Inconvenient Truth (2006), the education-oriented Waiting for Superman (2010) and It Might Get Loud – with a lot of substance. His problematic paradox in From the Sly Down is bringing both too much and too little to the table at the same time, micromanaging yet keeping the story at a distance. Why no mention of Bono’s extensive humanitarian work, for example? Tedious, unnecessary animated sequences slow the momentum but serve as filler in a surprisingly sketchy 90 minutes. And strangest of all, the sum of its parts carries little historic consequence, even though a world without U2 would be a far sorrier place.

– Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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