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After Nearly 50 Years of U2, Bono Wonders: ‘Is There Any Merit To These Songs Without The Rock Band?’

‘Bono and the Edge: A Sort of Homecoming, With David Letterman’ on Disney+ is a charming and surprisingly candid exploration of the legendary band born from “the troubles" and the Clash
Bono, The Edge
(Credit: Courtesy of Disney+)

In less than 90 minutes, A Sort of Homecoming is part history lesson, part concert, part interview, and part travelog featuring three of the most influential entertainers of the 21st Century: Bono, the Edge, and David Letterman. Filmed between U2 tours while bassist Andy Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. were engaged in other projects, the new documentary is framed around an unnerving question posed by Mr. Hewson: Do U2’s songs hold up without the whole “rock band” thing? 

To find out, they went full Tár-mode. Encircled by a string orchestra, Bono and the Edge performed hits like “Vertigo,” “Surrender,” and “Beautiful Day” as if they were conservatory students practicing backstage for a recital. There was no audience — nothing but the mic plugged into an electrical socket. “We wanted to strip away the artifice that inevitably emerges after you’ve been around this long,” Bono said. “In the isolation of the pandemic, it was almost like, what is left when everything is stripped away? Where do you take it?”

While Bono and the Edge rediscovered their music, Letterman discovered Dublin. In the role of bumbling tourist, Letterman jovially hopped on a U2 walking tour, stumbled into Ireland’s only reggae shop, and randomly purchased an enormous wheel of cheese. When he finally sat across from Bono, he didn’t bother mentioning any of the singer’s myriad accomplishments. He simply admitted, “my self-esteem has never been lower.” 

What keeps Bono up at night — as well as in the band — he said, is the taunting fantasy of writing the song that’s just out of reach. “Music, for me, is like heart surgery,” he said. But, perhaps more than any other band of that stature, U2’s present is inextricable from its home country’s past. Bono and the Edge grew up in Dublin while “the troubles,” the long period of political violence between Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists, gripped Northern Ireland. They started U2 as teenagers. But, as Bono implied, the beating heart of the band came in the form of a “hymn of a despair” written by the Edge.

“On one particular day this rage poured out,” the Edge said, wearing his signature skull cap and goatee, an acoustic guitar on his lap. He was 21 at the time. “This frustration at not being able to write, not knowing if I should be in a rock and roll band and what the future might hold.” The song was “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” The Edge’s transformation of internal rage was a kind of spiritual lightning rod for Bono.

“My life opened up as an artist when I realized you don’t have to solve every contradiction,” he reflected at the end of the program. “In fact, right at the center of contradiction is the place to be.”

‘Bono and the Edge: A Sort of Homecoming, With David Letterman’ is available to stream on Disney+.