TIFF 2011 opens with U2 rock doc

The Toronto International Film Festival kicks off in rock and roll fashion Thursday, with the U2 doc From The Sky Down opening the annual, star-studded, cinematic celebration.

The Toronto International Film Festival kicks off with a decidedly rock and roll opening Thursday, with the world premiere of Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim's From The Sky Down, a portrait of U2 during the making of the group's watershed album, Achtung Baby.   

The anticipated film, which chronicles the Irish band's struggle to redefine its sound 20 years ago, is the first documentary ever chosen as TIFF's opening night gala.

It was an "irresistible" choice to start the star-studded annual cinematic celebration, which runs Sept. 8-18, said TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey.

Point one in the film's favour was its director. Guggenheim, who won an Academy Award for An Inconvenient Truth, had previously brought two other titles to Toronto: the U.S. public education exposé Waiting for Superman and the guitar-rock doc It Might Get Loud.

Recalling Achtung Baby

Canadian artist and über-producer Daniel Lanois, a key U2 collaborator over the years, recalls the difficult birth of the band's landmark 1991 album Achtung Baby, forged in wintry Berlin.

"It can be very grey, but sometimes the music that you make will go against the grain of the place that you are at … As I hear Achtung Baby now, I hear a lot of hope and a lot of gratitude. There are many, many flavours of that record that are not grey at all. They are fantastically colourful and futuristic," he told Radio-Canada in a recent interview.

Capturing creativity on film

"I've made many records that were not documented on film and I wish they had [been]. I made some records with Bob Dylan — it would be nice to see how they were made. I'm pretty old-fashioned regarding mystery. I like a lot of mystery, so I wouldn't want the film to just expose everything. That's not my idea of great art. But if there is an opportunity to see how something was created, and it's done with good taste and with dignity, I think that could help everybody.

Time to reflect

"A classic only becomes a classic with time, so to show everything you are doing at the time of release, I don't think that's as good as waiting 20 years, as U2 has done [with From The Sky Down].

"It's easy to say, 'Somebody was beautiful and they were great and they were playing fast and they were so amazing,' but what am I left with? You want to be left with something to take home. So U2 always leaves you with a little something to take home in terms of dignity and having celebrated subject matter that we should keep revisiting … It's a very complex tapestry of emotion that comes from those men, but I think goodness is pretty much at the bottom of it."

"We like his work a lot and he has a way of getting inside the working relationship of very prominent people," Bailey told CBC News.

"We like the fact that [the film is] about the process of creativity, which is what we're about as a festival. And I'm a U2 fan. I love that album, so it was kind of irresistible."

In recent years, a growing musical undercurrent has also been running through the festival, admitted TIFF CEO Piers Handling, with high-profile documentaries shining a cinematic spotlight on recording artists like Bruce Springsteen, The White Stripes and Joy Division. Other TIFF 2011 films showcasing musicians include Cameron Crowe's Pearl Jam Twenty, Jonathan Demme's Neil Young Journeys, Albert Maysles' The Love We Make and Paul Williams Still Alive by Stephen Kessler.

"Music has actually been a theme for the last number of years for me and some of the festival programmers. It's been fascinating to watch [films about] so many of these great bands we used to, you know, listen to as kids," Handling said.

"It's very exciting because I think so many of the most interesting films being done today are actually documentaries."

High-profile films, international stars

Though not tied to a music film, pop icon Madonna will visit TIFF with her latest directorial effort, the romantic drama W.E. 

Her film is one of the premiere titles to be showcased at the festival, joining David Cronenberg's psychoanalysis drama A Dangerous Method, George Clooney's political film The Ides of March, Michael Winterbottom's modern literary adaptation Trishna, silent film drama The Artist, Luc Besson's bio about Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi entitled The Lady, fast-paced crime thriller Drive and the baseball tale Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt.

Along with Cronenberg's film, notable Canadian offerings include Sarah Polley's marital dramedy Take This Waltz, Mike Clattenburg's dark, wartime comedy Afghan Luke, Bruce McDonald's mockumentary sequel Hard Core Logo 2, cross-cultural hockey comedy Breakaway, Jean-Marc Vallée's dual love story Café de Flore and Léa Pool's fundraising exposé doc Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Aside from the music docs, the non-fiction lineup also includes the latest from prominent documentarians Wim Wenders (Pina), Werner Herzog (Into the Abyss), Nick Broomfield (Sarah Palin — You Betcha! ), Alex Gibney (The Last Gladiators), Jessica Yu (Last Call at the Oasis), Gary Huswit (Urbanized) and Morgan Spurlock (Comic Con: Episode IV - A Fan's Hope).

Altogether, the 11-day festival will screen 336 movies (short and full-length), across 17 different film programs.

Showcasing new Canadian films, international titles from 65 different countries, emerging directors as well as veteran filmmakers and stars like Francis Ford Coppola (Twixt) and Christopher Plummer (Barrymore) — all are exciting prospects, said Bailey.

"The range of people and the range of films I think we're going to be able to bring to the audience is what excites me," he said.

"We are launching what we feel are the best new films of the year, here."