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Q&A: From the Sky Down director Davis Guggenheim

Toronto Star, September 07, 2011
By: Peter Howell

 

Oscar-winning documentarian Davis Guggenheim first helped a U2 member touch the sky after he directed axeman The Edge in It Might Get Loud, a 2008 salute to rock guitar.

But Guggenheim's involvement with From the Sky Down, his U2 doc world-premiering Thursday as TIFF's gala opener, really started way back with Boy, the band's 1980 debut album. That's when he became a fan.

"My brother brought home Boy the year I was 17," says Guggenheim, 47, en route to Toronto for the big show.

"Up to that point, I loved music but it was someone else's music. And when I heard Boy it was like, ‘Oh, this is my music, you know?'

"U2 was the first band that I grew up with and felt a kinship with. So I'm a big fan, which is maybe a problem. As a journalist, it's like covering a murder in your own home: How do you keep your sense of objectivity and perspective?"

Having worked with The Edge previously was "my way in" to U2's tight brotherhood, Guggenheim says. But these Irish superstars had also seen and appreciated his previous docs, which include the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth and the Sundance-winning Waiting for "Superman."

They'd also seen Thom Zimny's The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, and Stephen Kijak's Stones in Exile, docs from last year chronicling the birth of important Bruce Springsteen and Rolling Stones album.

U2 wanted their own doc for 1991's Achtung Baby, their seventh album, which marked a changing point for the group's sound and identity, moving from sloganeering rock towards dance abandon.

Earlier this year, The Edge, singer Bono, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. asked Davis to make what became From the Sky Down, the first doc to open TIFF in its 36-year history.

"I think I should be happy about that," Davis says of the historical precedent. "Is it good enough to do that?"

Fans will be the ultimate judge, but first, the details.

Q. You could have picked a more conventional U2 album to celebrate, such as the breakthrough 1987 disc The Joshua Tree. Why Achtung Baby?

A. What I was drawn to was how they felt about that moment in their life. Each of them had a very different perspective, but it was definitely a tumultuous time for them. It was a time when they either had to reinvent themselves or perish. They reinvented themselves in an incredible way, but it was touch and go!

Q. How does Achtung Baby rank on your list of U2 faves?

A. What's incredible about U2 is that it's hard to pick. With the Rolling Stones, I could say Exile on Main Street is my favourite album. U2 albums are so wildly different, from Boy to Joshua Tree to Achtung Baby. But it's certainly one of my favourites. And now, knowing the story, it's amazing that a band at the height of their popularity chooses to go completely the other way. All the fans wanted was another "Where the Streets Have No Name" and they gave them the exact opposite. I think that's what's unique about the band: the way they continue to reinvent themselves.

Q. It's incredible that it's still just the four original guys, decades later.

A. Can you believe it? They met at school when they were 16 and 17. They grew up together and they stayed together. There seems to be a law of physics that says a rock band has to explode or implode or die away as a sort of memory of themselves. And they've defied that law of physics. To me, that's the big mystery of the band. I think the revelatory word in the movie, in this regard, is "collective."

Q. In the film you show Bono calling out chord changes, as the group rehearses for its Glastonbury Festival performance last June. Is Bono always this much in charge?

A. I think this is a better question for them, but I get a sense it was always that way: that it's very collaborative and a collective but he's the guy calling out the chords, you know? But they each bring something to the table. That's my sense of it.

Q. The film uses archival footage to focus on the writing of "Mysterious Ways" and "One" as the two Achtung Baby tracks of greatest importance. How did this come about?

A. It's magic. I did these solo interviews with them, just sitting down with a microphone, and got these intimate interviews and each one of them talked about that moment when nothing was working (during the Achtung Baby sessions) and they were just mad as hell at each other and nothing was coming out of it. . .

And then this song ("Mysterious Ways") happens. And I go, "Well, this is the moment. Let's go after it." We went into the archive and the original recordings from those sessions were there. They were playing "Mysterious Ways" and these chords arrived for "One," and then the next moment when they pull those chords out to start another song, and wow! It's like you're an archaeologist and you're digging through the dirt and the rubble and you find this stone that holds the key to this mystery.

Q. The band members coined the word "Bongolese" to describe how Bono uses an improvised scat singing method to come up with song lyrics. Does he do that for every song?

A. I don't know if it's for every song but he does it a lot. What's interesting, and it's where the title of the movie comes from, is how he talks about how the words come at the end and, in the middle of that, he's doing this thing conjuring up the melody and conjuring up the feeling, and words are kind of an afterthought.

Q. Did you get any feel for where the band is headed now? Do they feel rejuvenated?

A. We didn't talk about "now." Maybe I should have, but we just didn't talk about it. I know they're deep into the next album. There's an excitement about it.

(c) Toronto Star, 2011.

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