What insights can anyone gain about a highly successful rock band that’s been around for nearly 50 years? A new documentary on Disney+ takes us back to the roots of what brought the four members of U2 together, and it’s both inspiring and refreshing.
U2 was formed in 1976 by four high-schoolers, Paul Hewson, David Evans, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen, Jr. We know the first two better as Bono (vocals) and The Edge (guitar), names they took on as the four dreamed up a town named “Lypton Village,” imagining alternative names for themselves as citizens of that village. For Bono and the Edge, the names stuck well beyond high school.
In A Sort of Homecoming, Bono and The Edge team with late-night master David Letterman to provide a taste of what it’s been like being in U2, along with a dose of the Irish history that drove them together and shaped their music. Letterman, if you don’t know, has a close relationship with the group, having hosted them repeatedly for Late Night performances. He brings some silliness to the proceedings, but one can tell he’s genuinely enamored with the fellas and often awestruck.
Letterman also takes us on a tour of Ireland, which in this show appears to have nonstop clouds and rainy weather. Clayton (bass) and Mullen (drums) could not participate in the show given that the former was busy making an art film and the latter was nursing injuries to his arms and neck. Nonetheless, their other bandmates provide substantial commentary.
In the special, the group describes a band born from the culture of a particular (coed) high school at a particular time. Northern Ireland’s struggle with the rest of the island, Protestant versus Catholic, and the significant influence of England made for terrorism, bloodshed, and stress. U2 was originally created out of the desire of four young men to profess Catholic values in a way not obvious or heavy-handed. Indeed in the discussions, Bono points out how many of the lyrics can be construed as being both general commentaries on life and how we treat each other – but could also be about specific religious values we should all be espousing (kindness, love, support, patience).
A repeated segment in the show is stripped-down performances by Bono and The Edge at the Ambassador Theater in Dublin. The show cuts back to this musical performance by the duo, supported by many local artists playing various orchestral instruments. It was a free show, and Letterman is seen handing out tickets to various startled bystanders. Bono remarks that this performance (and the associated album) is meant to strip all the noise from the original versions of these songs, and in some cases to change the lyrics to reflect current circumstances. For example, in “Sunday Bloody Sunday” not only are there changes to the lyrics but to the tense of some of them, as well.
Songs performed at the Theater include “Bad”, “Where the Streets Have No Name”, “One”, “Beautiful Day”, and “Vertigo, to name a few. And if this documentary only contained these performances, it would still be worth watching. Moreover, it’s the connection that the band has with the locals; casually sneaking into a pub to join a singalong really drives this point home. Interviewed and participating in the musical numbers is local Irish folk singing legend Glen Hansard. He brings a John Prine-turned-Irish sensibility to the numbers he participates in, and through his interviews ruminating on the soul of Ireland.
The stripped-down songs are remarkable and hold their own against the originals – often better in some cases. “Vertigo” on acoustic guitar is still a rocker. Bono’s voice and indeed The Edge, who is a remarkably talented singer as well, brings a deeper sense to the lyrics of the U2 classics. The ability of Bono to trail his voice off and sing so effortlessly is something you don’t appreciate from the previous radio-edit releases.
The duo is asked whether they ever were close to walking away and apparently this was the circumstance a few times. Bono’s penchant for activism and chumming up to otherwise vile politicians to accomplish something for the overall good caused friction and embarrassment, to use the word choice of The Edge. And frankly, just the idea of four guys spending nearly 50 years in such proximity tends to tear friendships apart.
There’s an interesting portion where Bono tells the audience during their theater performance that, in truth, The Edge could have done all of this without him. And indeed, it’s clear during the show that The Edge wrote most of the music, can sing as well as Bono, and performs a variety of instruments. The Edge replies coyly that it wouldn’t have been as much fun going it alone. It’s a great line that brings a laugh and a hug to both men.
At one point, Bono and The Edge introduce a new song written the previous night titled “Forty Foot Man” about Letterman, who seems to be truly awestruck and humbled. In fact, David Letterman does bring something special to the documentary in that he asks earnest questions in a way that forces people to step out behind from behind any protective curtain. In a particular segment, he prods Bono about what happened in Ireland over the last forty years, which causes Bono to take out an iPad and draw Ireland, carve out Northern Ireland, and describe the politics over the last half-century.
A key takeaway is that over the course of fewer than 50 years, Ireland transformed from being a staunchly conservative nation, embroiled in religious infighting that hid sexuality, into one that was the first to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote.
In another segment, Letterman interviews a drag performer who left Ireland to live in Japan due to persecution. She didn’t care for U2 at the time but happened to go to a concert while in Japan, which changed her sentiments about the band. She managed to get in touch with Bono, and was even brought on stage during one of their shows to call out support for everyone, no matter their lifestyle.
For as much as you might know about U2, whether you like their music, the band, or their activism – or not – this documentary connects you with the humanity the band has tried to bring to their music. It’s definitely worth checking out.
Photo: Getty Images
PS — While we’re on the topic of Rock History, you might enjoy our YouTube series of daily one-minute nuggets of memorable moments…