Uno, dos, tres, catorce ... TIFF.
The 36th Toronto International Film Festival officially launched on Thursday night – not with a bang or a whimper, but with the sound of an Irish rock 'n' roll band.
"From the Sky Down," Oscar-winning director Davis Guggenheim's exploration of the recording of U2's 1991 album "Achtung Baby," served as TIFF's opening-night selection – and if it didn't rock Roy Thomson Hall quite as hard as the Bruce Springsteen documentary "The Promise" did at last year's festival, credit that to the more staid opening-gala crowd.
The screening came complete with a red carpet, and with lots of speeches thanking various donors before festival co-director Cameron Bailey brought out Guggenheim, who in turn called U2 singer Bono (left) and guitarist the Edge to the stage.
The Edge pointed out that the band has "a lot of friends" in the Toronto area, including composer Michael Brook and producer Daniel Lanois, while Bono admitted that he was wary of letting Guggenheim document the recording of an album that took place when the hugely successful band was in a state of complete disarray.
"We are very protective of our privacy, and particularly the creative process," he said. "Not just because we're precious – which we are – but because it's not that pretty.
"It's like the old adage of if you knew what went into the sausage, you wouldn’t eat it," he said. "We've got some sausages and mash coming up, ladies and gentlemen."
"From the Sky Down" is the first time TIFF has opened with a documentary, but not the first time it had kicked off with a music film – last year 's opener, for instance, was the accurately titled but not especially well received "Score, A Hockey Musical."
Still, it's safe to say that that film drew far less attention outside of Canada than will the U2 doc, which debuts on Showtime on October 29 and will be featured in special editions of the band's upcoming "Achtung Baby" anniversary box set.
A huge crush of fans crowded the plaza around Roy Thomson Hall to catch glimpses and get autographs from the very obliging Bono and the Edge. A bonus: Guggenheim brought along his wife, actress Elisabeth Shue, whose presence caused a couple of TV commentators to wax nostalgic about "Adventures in Babysitting," the 1987 comedy in which Shue, then in her early 20s, appeared.
That film, entirely coincidentally, was released around the time that U2 was traveling around the world on the tour that followed its album "The Joshua Tree." As "From the Sky Down" describes it, that tour – and "Rattle and Hum," the movie that was made along the way – was a turning point for the band, when their dour, unsmiling image and earnest attempts to explore American roots music resulted in a critically-lambasted money-loser.
The album that followed was, Bono says in the documentary, "the pivot point" – the moment when U2 had to prove to itself that it was good enough to continue, by exploding the band that it had been and finding a new band within.
Producer Brian Eno, a valuable interview subject in the film, sums up the dilemma at one point: "As an artist," he says, "your biggest obstacle is your own history."
"From the Sky Down" starts slowly, and takes about an hour to get to the real meat: the look inside the "Achtung Baby" sessions, which produced the band's strangest album to date, but one that in retrospect may well be its best.
Many of the highlights of the film focus on the music from that album: a beautiful version of the underappreciated ballad "Love Is Blindness," performed solo by the Edge, and particularly a section that uses old studio tapes to document the creation of the classic "One," for my money U2's greatest song.
As the song slowly comes into focus on the old audiotapes, the Edge describes a key breakthrough as "one of those hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck moments"; 20 years later, in a theater in Toronto rather than a studio in Berlin, it still is.
For a longtime U2 fan, those moments are the jewels in "From the Sky Down" – a film that brought me back to the days before "Achtung Baby," when I saw U2 wrestling with the implications of becoming the world's biggest band.
I saw them frequently and spoke to them regularly during those years, and particular remember a lengthy interview in a Dublin pub just after New Year's 1988.
To avoid being pestered, the band was gathered in one of what are called "the snugs" – small booths walled off on three sides but open to the bar on the fourth. "As the band gets bigger, the rooms we drink in get smaller," laughed The Edge of the tight confines.
Later in the conversation, Bono kept talking about his own confusion in the wake of the mammoth Joshua Tree tour and the "Rattle and Hum" film.
"I think we've got to go away for a while now, he said, using words similar to ones he would later say onstage in a clip featured in the new doc. "Just go away and dream it up."
"From the Sky Down" is what they dreamed, which makes it a fascinating document and a rockin' way to kick off a film festival.