Next Thursday evening, when the lights dim at Roy Thomson Hall, the gala audience will sit back to watch something never before seen in the opening-night history of the Toronto International Film Festival: a documentary. But nothing unsettling that might rattle their jewellery, not one of those downbeat treatises starring man's folly. Nope, this isn't just any documentary – it's a rock doc. And it doesn't feature just any band – From the Sky Down spotlights, in the expansive phrase of TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey, "the biggest rock band in the world right now." In short, U2.
Well, the questions are obvious. Why break tradition to kick things off with a doc? And why this particular doc? Addressing the first, Bailey offers tradition itself as a motive: "There's always been a strong documentary component to the festival and this is a country with a rich history in documentaries." True enough, although, with stellar names like Beryl Fox and Donald Brittain and the National Film Board fading with every passing decade, that "rich history" is cited too often as a smug generality. So allow me to be specific for a second.
This year, Nick Broomfield brings his doc Sarah Palin – You Betcha! to the festival. But that film wouldn't have been possible, nor would much of Broomfield's oeuvre, nor would Michael Moore's reputation-making Roger & Me, without the original template of a witty documentary done at the NFB back in 1974 by Michael Rubbo – his Waiting for Fidel invented the stalkumentary. It's pleasant to remember that our rich history penetrates right to the present.
Of course, a taste for filmed "reality" is in vogue these days, or at least, at the pop level, a taste for that soft "reality TV" version typically accompanied by singing and dancing and celebs of varying stripes. Which brings us, then, to the second question: Why this U2 doc? Certainly, the band is no stranger to the camera – the lads have been paraded on the big screen before, in the likes of U2: Rattle and Hum and U2 3D. Even Davis Guggenheim, the director of From the Sky Down, had an earlier flirtation, showcasing The Edge in his study of rock guitarists, It Might Get Loud.
Naturally, by way of explanation, Bailey puts an artsy spin on things, citing Guggenheim for his Oscar-winning success in An Inconvenient Truth, and for "his way of dealing with well-known prominent people and getting behind their personas." To that end, the film sees the band members revisiting that period in '91 when, amid the confines of a Berlin studio, they struggled to renew themselves creatively, and eventually emerged with Achtung Baby. For all these reasons, then, Bailey concludes of the opening-night selection: "We thought it was the best fit for us."
Actually, the fit is far better than he might have realized. Since U2 and TIFF have both become "prominent" in their own way, let's follow Guggenheim's lead and do a little digging "behind the personas." Hey, it turns out the two have a whole lot in common, beginning with this curious bit of trivia: They share the same birthday. Each was born in September, 1976, flirting with different names before settling on their current handle. Both started out small, grew bigger, then got huge – U2 into today's colossus status; TIFF into a globally significant festival that, while still lacking the prestige of the venerable Cannes, beats the hell out of the old gal in sheer numbers – 336 films in this fall's accounting.
To house their size, both have built their own accommodations – the band, a vast stage for the vaster stadiums it now plays; and the festival, its shiny new Lightbox. That's not to suggest quantity has entirely eclipsed quality. Each definitely possesses a serious artistic side. Few would deny that the U2 catalogue contains some enduring rock anthems. Similarly, pick at random 10 movies from the TIFF program, compare them to 10 chosen from the usual multiplex fare on any given Friday, and the relative aesthetic merit will be patently obvious. In Toronto, every September, cinema enjoys a brief resurrection.
What's more, in developing their artistry, the rockers and the programmers alike have reached out to embrace international influences while still clinging to their roots – U2 takes pride in being an Irish band; TIFF takes pains to fly, and preserve, the flag of Cancon. For both, their relationship with Americana seems, like most cases of mutual dependency, to be a love-hate affair. They need the Yanks and, happy surprise, the Yanks have come to need them. Big money is involved.
Speaking of lucre, there's no doubt that U2 and TIFF share very shrewd commercial instincts. They know how to amass cash for themselves, and have invited criticism for their zeal – the band, by sheltering its gains in tax havens; the fest, by boasting more corporate sponsors than the boards on a dozen hockey rinks. Yet they're equally adroit at raising money for the causes they espouse – for Bono and U2, social and political causes; for the festival, the cause of cinema, advanced year-long in that Lightbox, which is an invaluable (and underappreciated) repository of art flicks and auteur retrospectives.
Now, in this age, like any other, commerce and celebrity are close cousins with linked powers, a fact acutely understood by the band no less than by the festival. Bono is a wizard at using his celebrity, often in collaboration with the media, to publicize his social concerns. For example, he's assumed a "guest editor" role at several newspapers (including this one) to enhance public awareness of African famine and debt relief. There, the deal is clear-cut: He gets to promote his social message, the newspaper gets his presence, both parties are satisfied.
With Hollywood's eager help, TIFF deploys its celebrities in the same skillful way, trotting them out on red carpets and in interview rooms for the collaborating media. Again, a clear-cut deal: George Clooney gets to promote his movie, the press gets his presence, both parties are satisfied.
As depicted in Guggenheim's film, U2 has laboured over the years, sometimes openly and disputatiously, to chart new creative ground. TIFF, well, not so much. Its ascent has been a smooth upward arc, with the inevitable sacrifice of intimacy to the well-oiled machine. The struggle here is not so much creative as political – to maintain its democratic reputation as a "people's festival" in an increasingly corporate atmosphere. Squabbling, if it happens, is internal and never public.
So on to Thursday night, when the festival will open by hitching its wagon to a rock star or four. That's a local first, but hardly a novelty. Directors, and some very good ones, have been wagon-hitching since pretty much the dawn of rock 'n' roll – D.A. Pennebaker in Don't Look Back, Michael Wadleigh in Woodstock, Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz, Jonathan Demme in Stop Making Sense.
The festival has every good reason to follow suit. From the Sky Down may be a great film, it may suck, but artistry takes a back seat on this gala occasion. What matters is that the boys of U2 are up on TIFF's screen, and perhaps in TIFF's audience, too. What matters is the fit – and it's damn near perfect.