Friday, November 11, 2011

Music doc rock off: U2 From the sky down vs Pearl Jam 20

The two documentaries U2: From the sky down and Pearl Jam 20 essentially cover the same themes: fame, band dynamics and reinvention but there is one small moment in both documentaries that highlights the stark difference between them. Both films feature a moment where each band is being courted by Time magazine. In the Joshua Tree era where U2 are running towards fame with open arms, Bono excitedly yells "they wanna put us on the cover of Time magazine!" Meanwhile, the similar moment for Pearl Jam resulted Eddie Vedder agreeing with Kurt Cobain to not participate in a Time article on grunge and to his disgust "they put me on the fucking cover anyway."

Of course, that difference is not surprising. U2 had been in existence for over ten years before the giddy heights of the Joshua Tree where Pearl Jam's first record thrust them into frenzy of instant fame, authenticity debates and general craziness of the grunge explosion. While Pearl Jam's reaction to fame is often bemused and horrified, both bands want their music to reach a wide audience but what happens when you get it? What do you do with it? In the case of U2, they make the misguided step of Rattle and Hum which cast them as self important arseholes and in Pearl Jam, they awkwardly try to sidestep the adulation which seems to make things worse. In the wash up, U2 reinvents itself to subvert their stoic persona into something wittier, personal and profound while Pearl Jam retreated from the spotlight to create a Dead-like cult following which exists outside the mainstream. In that respect, both bands struggle internally and externally as they redefine their identity as a group.

From the sky down essentially tells the story of how Achtung Baby came into existence and its troubled birth as U2 try to find a new sound and identity. The film unfolds slowly giving an overview of their history to Rattle and Hum but cuts pretty deep. U2's wild eyed idealism is quickly replaced with wild eyed shock when the band members realise that they've painted themselves into a corner. Even the purest intentions have been misconstrued and they find themselves being an entity they can't recognise or relate to anymore. Commenting on the end of the Rattle and Hum tour Bono says "let's get a big fucking chainsaw and cut down the Joshua Tree." The pain and division in Achtung Baby's birth threatens to break up the band as Bono and Edge strive to redefine themselves while Larry and Adam are unwilling passengers in that reinvention.

Pearl Jam on the other hand forms in the aftermath of Andy Woods' death and explodes in an unforeseen way. When the band forms, Vedder is very much adding his baritone to the music written by the other members but the instant fame is crushing and harsh. Vedder, reeling from Cobain's death, takes control of the band's direction causing friction and a change in the internal dynamics. Vedder wants to make the band smaller based on a Fugazi model while the rest of the band wants to be Zeppelin but eventually it's about the band taking control of their destiny. Some of it is well intentioned and slightly fruitless but they feel their way to a place of comfort.

Both films (Sky directed by Davis Guggenheim and 20 by Cameron Crowe) are skillfully put together and centre around moments in time which shape the bands. For U2, from the low of Rattle and Hum, the film ostensibly builds to the writing of One which kick started the stalled writing of Achtung Baby. Pearl Jam's run from fame, it's fight against Ticketmaster and the death of nine fans at the 2000 Roskilde festival are the telling points in 20. Being a U2 fan, it's interesting to watch the internal struggles of the band and how candid they are about their individual failings. I'm hardly a Pearl Jam fan but their story is compelling and they actually seem like reasonable people in a slightly strange position of dealing with instant fame.

I watched the films as a double feature one afternoon (confession: if there is a documentary about music, even stuff I don't like, I'll probably watch it) and it worked well as a contrast. From the sky down is a far more objective documentary where Cameron Crowe is obviously a Pearl Jam fan and there is a certain pandering in that. Despite this, he doesn't shy from the ugly moments in the band (even if they gloss over the revolving cast of drummers in the band). Bono and Vedder come off the worst in the films but I guess the ego of the lead singer probably casts them in an unflattering light but they are true their respective crusades. Both films feature some amazing scenes, Bono's hissy fit as the band struggles to make the leap from smaller shows to stadiums while fleeting footage of Cobain and Vedder dancing together is strangely moving. In the rock off, U2 wins but both of these films are worth your time even if you're not a fan.



  1. good write up! didn't know about either - will check them out.

  2. oh, and then at the end of the trailer - I see this has been timed with an anniversary edition. Oh, OK, I SEE.

  3. They're both twenty year anniversaries, 20 years since Achtung Baby and the release of Pearl Jam's first record. Don't let that put you off, especially the U2 one, it's definitely worth watching and is far better than the trailer suggests.