Sept. 14 (Bloomberg) -- During a press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival, U2 singer Bono was asked how close the band came to breaking up while recording the album “Achtung Baby” in the early 1990s.
“Very,” he replied.
Pressed to rate it on a scale of 1-10, Bono grinned and added, “Very is Irish for nine.”
When it comes to hyped documentaries about rock legends, Toronto rates a 10 this year.
“From the Sky Down,” Oscar-winner Davis Guggenheim’s film about U2, was the first documentary in the festival’s 36-year history to be selected as the opening-night feature.
Also playing in Toronto are “Pearl Jam Twenty,” a celebration of the band’s 20th anniversary by Cameron Crowe, and “Neil Young Journeys,” Jonathan Demme’s production of the singer’s two concerts at Toronto’s Massey Hall in May.
Though they differ in style and tone, all three films are admiring portraits made by celebrated directors.
“From the Sky Down,” which will be shown Oct. 29 on Showtime, centers on “Achtung Baby,” the seminal 1991 album that marked a dramatic turning point in U2’s career. Guggenheim follows the band as it returns to the Berlin studio where “Achtung” was recorded to rehearse for the 2011 Glastonbury Festival in England.
When U2 was making the record, artistic and personal conflicts threatened to pull them apart.
“What was really at stake was the end of the trust that bound the four of us together,” U2 guitarist The Edge said at the press conference.
Guggenheim, who had worked with The Edge on a documentary about electric guitarists called “It Might Get Loud,” was given intimate access to the band.
The director of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” recorded long, rambling audio-only interviews with U2 that are sprinkled throughout the film.
“I wanted them stripped down, raw and unselfconscious,” Guggenheim said.
Sometimes, Bono said, it got too close for comfort.
“I felt like I was mugged,” he said, “and what really annoyed me was I didn’t know I was being mugged because of the way Davis carries himself. It was a sleight-of-hand trick.”
“Pearl Jam Twenty,” scheduled to be shown in theaters next week and telecast by PBS on Oct. 21, chronicles the history of a group that helped put Seattle on the musical map. The film tracks the group’s rise from local grunge band to superstars packing arenas and stadiums around the world.
Pearl Jam is a rarity in the rock world, a group that has stayed together for two decades with virtually the same lineup. Lead singer Eddie Vedder and guitarists Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard and Mike McCready have been with the group since the beginning, while drummer Matt Cameron joined in 1998.
“Playing in a band is really a delicate thing,” Vedder told reporters in Toronto. “If you’ve ever tried to order a pizza with five people, it’s difficult. ... So we’ve been very fortunate.”
Ament and Gossard previously played in a group called Mother Love Bone, whose lead singer Andrew Wood died of a heroin overdose in 1990.
“Pearl Jam takes the usual rock story and turns it on its head,” said Crowe, who wrote and directed “Almost Famous,” a 2000 film based on his days as a teenage music journalist.
“The usual rock story is incredible promise, a brief period of brilliance, then tragedy cuts it short. Pearl Jam is exactly the opposite. It’s a tragedy that was surmounted. These guys found joy through survival.”
The film includes rarely seen footage of the band, on and off the stage.
“The Holy Grail was the film of Kurt Cobain and Eddie slow-dancing backstage at the 1992 VMAs (Video Music Awards),” Crowe said. “Eric Clapton was playing ‘Tears in Heaven’ at the time. It’s so powerful because it’s such a human moment.”
Young at Massey
“Neil Young Journeys” is the third collaboration between Demme and the great Canadian singer/songwriter following “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” and “Neil Young Trunk Show.”
It shows Young’s triumphant return to Massey Hall, where he gave a famous solo acoustic concert in 1971. The film intersperses songs from the 2011 concerts with Young’s memories of his youth as he drives a 1956 Ford Crown Victoria to Toronto from his boyhood home in Omemee, Ontario.
During a talk with the audience following the film’s premiere, Young fielded a question from a fourth-grade classmate he “had a crush on.” He recalled winning a prize at a fair and dropping it off at her house, even though he wasn’t sure what it was.
“I read later it was a dog collar,” he said.
Young tried to make it as a musician in Toronto in the 1960s before moving to Los Angeles.
“I was a complete failure here,” he told the audience. “I couldn’t get a job in this place.”
(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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