Whether you are a U2 fan or not, there is no denying their 1991 album Achtung Baby launched the band into the stratosphere of super-stardom and is simply one of the defining records of the ’90s. With over 5.5 million albums sold in the U.S. alone, two Grammys for Best Rock Performance and Producer of the Year (for Daniel Lanois), the record not only found the group adjusting to the changing musical landscape of the late ’80s and early ’90s, it redefined their image and put them at the forefront of a select bunch of groundbreaking and hugely popular bands. 2011 will mark 20 years since the album first hit shelves on November 19, 1991, and U2 are celebrating in style. This summer they made their first festival appearance at Glastonbury, kicking off their set with a slew of songs from Achtung Baby and a massive reissue of the album is set to be released in October. And to cap it all off, the band has teamed with Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth,” “It Might Get Loud“) to create “From the Sky Down,” a look back at the making of the album. It’s an exciting prospect, but unfortunately, it leaves you wanting much, much more.
To Guggenheim’s credit, to put Achtung Baby in context, he reaches back to recap where the band were coming from before they began work on the album. The Joshua Tree was easily their breakthrough to a wider mainstream audience as manager Paul McGuinness notes, and the subsequent tour found them adjusting from playing arenas to stadiums while on the road. Moreover, it was the first time in their careers that they extensively toured the United States and they used that new experience and surging popularity to embark on the infamous “Rattle & Hum.” The road movie/documentary that came, paired with an album, found the band’s earnest attempt to explore roots American music come off as a pretentious exercise of the Irish band brooding and introducing the United States to their own culture. It wasn’t the intention, but as Bono notes, the negative reception of the film was a blow to U2 and moreover, he admits his “intensity” was beginning to wear thin on his bandmates.
The world was changing. The Berlin Wall had come down, hair metal was on its way out, and authentic grunge was rattling in the Pacific Northwest. For U2, they were finding new inspiration from a different place. Bands like KMFDM, Einstürzende Neubauten and The Young Gods were on their radar and they were also hearing new sounds out of the rising club culture. And drawing a line from Kraftwerk — whose The Man-Machine album Bono says was one of the first he bought for his wife — to the music they were now investigating, they headed to Hansa Studios (where David Bowie recorded Heroes) and began the grueling sessions for the album.
So far, sounds pretty good right? Unfortunately, it takes 45 minutes — half of the film’s running time — before Guggenheim even starts addressing the making of the album. While the collection of archival footage of the band that is shown during the recap of U2’s rise through the ’80s is admittedly pretty great, it’s almost too comprehensive for a movie that is supposed to be about a single album and the result is that it takes the director away from getting to the subject at hand. And unfortunately, this shortchanges an in-depth discussion about how Achtung Baby was born. The most interesting and revealing portion of the second half of the film comes from Bono and The Edge listening to their old DAT tapes from the rehearsals and showing how “Mysterious Ways” (first titled “Sick Puppy”) and “One” were born (the latter was created out of a thrown away bridge from the former). But aside from “Love Is Blindness,” there are no discussions about any other songs on the album. Moreover, it’s almost a crime that Guggenheim doesn’t bother asking Daniel Lanois and Flood — two of the biggest producers in music — to describe their approach to creating the soundscape to the album. One that was a massive gear change from U2’s ’80s sound.
However, the biggest elephant in the room is the irony that Achtung Baby — crafted as a reaction to their self-serious ’80s persona and accusations of megalomania — wound up perching Bono as one of the biggest rock stars on the planet. Though his character The Fly — created as Bono admits by borrowing inspiration from Lou Reed‘s glasses, Jim Morrison‘s pants and Elvis Presley‘s jacket — was supposed to be a riff on the frontman persona, it’s arguable that most people didn’t see it that way. And it’s a bit difficult to buy that U2 were seeking to avoid being seen as egomaniacs as we watch Bono oversee a miniature set design of what would become the massive, multimedia heavy Zoo TV tour.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what Guggenheim never delves into. Achtung Baby also saw U2 create a series of iconic videos for the album, but we learn nothing about the ideas behind them or how they were developed. Nor is the artwork for the album — which featured Adam Clayton‘s penis on the back cover (uncensored on the vinyl version) — delved into much detail. And it’s not like Guggenheim didn’t have access to Anton Corbijn, a longtime photographer for the band, as he is interviewed in the film. Finally, how can you talk about Achtung Baby and not even mention Zooropa, recorded on a break during a massive world tour, which found the band taking their inspirations from electronic and industrial music even further (spawning another small batch of interesting videos — remember “Numb“?). The documentary ends before the release of the album — and that’s barely even beginning to tell the story of what Achtung Baby did to the musical landscape.
“From the Sky Down” is simply a missed opportunity and Guggenheim’s film feels like a warm up to a much longer (and better) documentary. Longtime U2 fans won’t find anything new or revelatory here, while casual fans will wonder why this album is so important in the first place (it would have been nice to get additional context from music folks outside of the band’s core). Achtung Baby deserved much better. [B-]