Director Jonas Akerlund on Shooting The Beautiful Day Video
It is already being talked of as a seminal moment in the short history of the rock video: midway through an ecstatic live performance of the new single Beautiful Day, a jumbo jet roars out from behind U2 and into the sky over their heads. The band, of course, just play on.
‘They were incredibly brave to go through with that,’ says director Jonas Akerlund, with a grin. ‘I feared for their lives, risking everything in the cause of art like that.’
Akerlund is one of the hottest properties in video at the moment. Recent work includes Moby (‘Porcelain’) and Smashing Pumpkins (‘Try’), while he may be best known for his Grammy-winning 1998 ‘Ray of Light’ video for Madonna and an MTV Best Video for Prodigy’s ‘Smack My Bitch Up’. The most difficult thing with every commission is coming up with something new, he says, but it is not any single visual motif in the Beautiful Day video he is proudest of – more the way it captures a performance by the band. ‘I always knew that I wanted to do a performance-based video with U2, they’ve done so many memorable videos but I can’t remember them performing as a band in such a way before.’
The 34yr old Swedish director first visited the band at their recording studios in Dublin in late Spring. At the time, while he was impressed with the new material from All That You Can’t Leave Behind, nothing was finished and no single identified. ‘They were demo’s really, no words on them,’ he recalls.
By July Beautiful Day had become the first single and, following a succesful photo-shoot of the band by Anton Corbijn, the strikingly modernist architecture of Paris Charles de Gaulle airport identified as a video location. Akerlund wanted to put an element of ‘surprise’ in the video because ‘the song surprises you, the way it really kicks in, this big contrast between verse and chorus.’ As for the two days of filming, well they were not beautiful at all, hovering throughout on the borders of a bureaucratic nightmare.
‘There was so much red-tape, it was a mess at times, very hard work to deal with the security people and a lot of hanging around, I was always scared we were losing the light…. all shoots have drama but this had more than most.’ Not surprising really, when you elect to shoot the band on carpets, on a runway – between two other runways – with planes landing and taking off every two minutes, at one of Europe’s busiest aiports.
Then there’s the singer of course, invited to mischief-make around the arrival and departure lounges while Akerlund kept him in focus with the long lens. ‘We had a sort of plan for Bono, like we gave him some fake money to give out to people but generally he was improvising most of the time,’ he explains. ‘He feels like an actor to me.’
Akerlund may be at a psychological advantage to other rock video directors because of his own pedigree as a musician in ‘loud’ Swedish bands, something he remains proud of. Artists like Metallica and Marilyn Manson still rave over cult band Bathory, in which he played drums. While he has been listening to U2 since they began, he concedes ‘being on the hard rock side of music it was hard to admit I liked them in the ’80’s!’ Honesty and artistic integrity persuaded him it was time to move from behind the drums to behind the cameras. ‘I have a huge respect for instruments,’ he says. ‘I quit because I wasn’t good enough.’ The decision paid off for the artists whose videos he has since directed but when the day-job allows, he still likes to play live.
As for the prospects of Beautiful Day, he has no doubt it will be one of U2’s biggest hits. ‘We have a phrase in Swedish, ‘to age with beauty’, and I feel this is a band who will do this. They are a ‘man band’ and that is strong, for me the only band in the world like that. ‘I think that they are going to be as influential with this new album as they have been in their career so far.’ Beautiful day is released on October 9th.