If the 1991 album Achtung Baby was, as front man Bono described it, the sound of “four men chopping down The Joshua Tree,” we might consider Davis Guggenheim’s new film – the opening movie of the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival – as the vision of one filmmaker to update the 1988 rockumentary Rattle and Hum. American director Guggenheim, whose documentary From the Sky Down looks back at the making of U2’s game-changing reinvention Achtung Baby, spoke to The Globe and Mail about creativity, distance and the Irish quartet’s mysterious ways of challenging physics.
Your film looks back at the place U2 was more than 20 years ago, all the way back to the documentary Rattle and Hum, a film which wasn’t a happy experience for the band. Given that, shouldn’t we be surprised that they wished to revisit the era with another documentary?
I think they were stung by that experience, with Rattle and Hum. They really got skewered by the reviews. And they themselves didn’t like how they came off.
Even the film’s director, Phil Joanou, admitted the movie was overly pretentious.
It got personal. But another thing is that the band felt it got too involved in the making of that movie. I think I’m the beneficiary of 20 years’ distance, because they really left me alone with From the Sky Down. I asked for a lot of access and intimacy, and they gave it to me. They left me completely alone to make the movie.
Maybe it wasn’t close to them. It seems the film might be the record label’s idea, to coincide with the upcoming 20th-anniversary reissue of Achtung Baby.
There’s this movement to do these anniversary movies, inspired by Bruce Springsteen movie The Promise [which premiered at last year’s TIFF] and the Exile on Main St. movie. But if the album is good, and the story is good, it’s a good reason to make a movie. And for them, it is the most tumultuous curve on their trajectory. They went from the heights of The Joshua Tree to the bitter fighting that happened during the Achtung Baby sessions in Berlin, with the band almost breaking up.
Such drama would attract a documentary filmmaker, obviously.
Oh, yeah. I’m a heat-seeking missile for drama. Who wants to see a movie about everything working perfectly?
What was the key moment of the film, as you see it, where things came together for the band and Achtung Baby?
When we found the [Digital Audio]tape of the session in Berlin’s Hansa Tonstudios, when they sort of stumble onto the song One, it became a breakthrough moment for them. They went from almost a breaking point to finding a new way of writing songs and finding new ways of seeing themselves as musicians. For me it was like being an archeologist. I’d been going through dust and rubble, and I found this invaluable artifact.
Is looking back in U2’s nature?
I don’t think it is. It’s their instinct to look forward and to reinvent themselves. This was a new thing for them.
As you show in this film, with a Rattle and Hum outtake, the band didn’t seem to know how to behave back then when it came to being the subjects of a documentary. What’s changed in two decades?
This is a band that is very aware of the media and how they’re seen. They’ve had it all. They’ve had incredible success and there have been other times where they’ve been criticized heavily. I think that’s the challenge of this movie, that they bring a lot of baggage to the table.
What did you come away with, as a filmmaker?
I’m always searching for the answers, for myself. Where do my ideas come from? Where does the creativity come from? As a non-musician, I have this maybe simplistic idea of the way songs are written. That guy gets out a pad of paper and writes some lyrics down. And a guys gets out a guitar and plays some chords. But U2 writes in a completely different way. They improvise together. They wait for these magic moments, and then they write the songs together. It’s inspiring.
There’s a part in the film where the band talks about being a clan, that they began by fighting against the other music and ideas around them, and that by Achtung Baby they were ready to fight against themselves – challenging themselves to reinvent U2. What are they fighting against now, in 2011?
I can’t speak about now. That’s another movie. But what seems to be a law of physics is that every band has to implode or explode, or calcify into a band that stays together, but in a lifeless way, like a bad marriage. I think U2 is fighting against that law of physics.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
From the Sky Down premieres in Toronto on Thursday (6:30 p.m. at the Elgin Theatre and 8 p.m. at Roy Thomson Hall). Also: Friday, 9 p.m., TIFF Bell Lightbox, and Sept 17, 6 p.m., Ryerson Theatre.