Dave Letterman on the sweet song Bono and the Edge wrote for him: 'Makes the first 35 years of being in television well worth the effort'
'A Sort of Homecoming' is part Dublin travelogue, part concert film and part U2 rockumentary, but most of all, it's a tribute to the enduring, evolving friendship between these three men.
During the lockdown of 2020, Bono and the Edge revisited, reimagined, and re-recorded 40 U2 classics for the quadruple-disc, career-spanning Songs of Surrender collection. Then, as travel restrictions eased up, in December 2022 they invited their famous fan and longtime friend, talk show icon David (apparently now just humble “Dave”) Letterman, to attend a special show in their native Dublin’s old Ambassador Cinema building. The result, lensed by Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom director Morgan Neville, is Bono & The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming with Dave Letterman — part Dublin travelogue (it was, surprisingly, Letterman’s first time in the city), part concert film, and part U2 rockumentary.
But most of all, the film — fittingly being released via Disney+ on St. Patrick’s Day, to coincide with the Irish band’s Songs of Surrender — is a touching tribute to the enduring, evolving friendship between these three men. In fact, the documentary’s most memorable musical moment doesn’t take place onstage at the Ambassador Cinema, and it’s not even on Songs of Surrender. It’s “Forty Foot Man,” a new original tune that Bono and the Edge wrote for Letterman in the middle of the night. The ditty was inspired by their day trip with Letterman to the Forty Foot, a Dublin Bay tourist attraction where daredevil swimmers regularly take a rite-of-passage icy plunge.
“Many nice things have happened to me for my life; this would be right at the top of that list,” an astonished and choked-up Letterman stammers in the film, after Bono and the Edge play a sketch of “Forty Foot Man” for him from the U2 guitarist’s iPhone.
“When we were in the library and this [song] was presented to me, I was stunned,” Letterman confessed during a Q&A at A Sort of Homecoming’s recent premiere at Los Angeles’s Orpheum Theatre, where he saw the film for the first time and was spontaneously serenaded with an a cappella “Forty Foot Man” by Bono himself. “I just thought, ‘At 3 o'clock in the morning, they're writing a song — and about me!’ And I thought, ‘Oh, I'm glad that's over.’ And then it turned out, ‘Oh no, it's not over. It's a real song!’ I can't tell you what a lovely gesture and gift that has been.”
Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment a week after the L.A. screening, Neville recalls with a smile: “At one point the Edge had mentioned that his phone was full of fragments of songs, and I said to them, ‘You know, it'd be great to be able to hear something.’ And literally that night, they stayed up… I know Edge was up till at least 3 A.M. working on this thing. Bono was writing lyrics, and then they surprised us all. I had no idea. They whipped out that song and played it for Dave, and Dave was so touched by it. It was amazing to watch. And it was the last thing we filmed.”
However, that sweet scene isn’t the last thing that appears in A Sort of Homecoming. The end credits actually roll over charming footage of a wet-suited Letterman — who refrained from swimming in the ice-cold water during his first on-camera visit to the Forty Foot — returning alone, sans Neville’s crew, to bravely dive in.
“That last sequence of Dave jumping in the Forty Foot, we did not film that on our shoot,” Neville reveals. “We filmed everything else in the second week of December, and it kind of felt like we’d kind of been on this journey together. And they wrote this song for him, and then we went home, and Dave was processing the fact they had written the song for him. So, over Christmas, he said, ‘I think I have to go back to Ireland and jump in the water’ — which is amazing. Because Bono had said that they were actually going to finish the song [in the studio], Dave flew back for one day [to film that scene] … Normally a director would have to convince talent to do something like that, but Dave knows what is going to make a good show and what the task requires. And I think for him it was like, Bono and the Edge went above and beyond for him [by writing “Forty Foot Man”], so he was going to go above and beyond for them.”
Even Bono and the Edge would probably agree that Letterman is the real star of Neville’s film; it actually wouldn’t be inappropriate if its full title was flipped to Dave Letterman: A Sort of Homecoming with Bono & The Edge, so that their friend could receive top billing. (“It was confirmed, the longer I stayed in Dublin, that I am so much more popular there than U2. I think that's my biggest takeaway,” Letterman joked onstage at the Orpheum.) It is, for lack of another way of putting it, downright adorable to witness how big a U2 fanboy Letterman is. Neville, a fanboy himself who recalls one of his first unchaperoned teen concert experiences being U2’s War tour at the L.A. Sports Arena in 1983, even says Letterman used to jog in the ‘80s with a The Joshua Tree cassette in his Walkman.
“I think the film, for me, is kind of about three things,” Neville muses. “It’s about songwriting and U2’s music, of course; it's about the relationship between Bono and the Edge, absolutely; and then it's about Dave’s journey to Ireland, and seeing Ireland's relationship with the band too. … What I was trying to do as a documentary person was not so much a ‘Dave talk show,’ but to say, ‘Hey, I want to make Dave as much a subject of the film as U2 is, and put him on a journey that he's not in control of. And then we film it, and see what happens.’”
Neville, who “quickly and kind of accidentally” shot the bulk of A Sort of Homecoming in one “lightning-fast” week, says “there was a kind of a freedom to not say, ‘We're doing a U2 documentary.’” This of course was an unavoidable creative constraint, given that U2 bassist Adam Clayton was “off making an art film” and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. was recovering from an injury, so neither participated in Neville’s shoot. (“If your two good-looking members have gone AWOL, you need to bring in some great storytellers,” Bono quipped at the Orpheum, joking that Clayton and Mullen had been effectively replaced by Letterman and Neville for this project.) The A Sort of Homecoming credits even thank Clayton and Mullen for letting Bono and the Edge “go rogue” in the doc, and Neville says, “Bono talked to them and I think showed them the film, and they were happy.” And the director says that by focusing on the band’s main songwriting duo, U2’s music — reassessed on Songs of Surrender — can be appreciated in a new way.
“The band famously has always credited all four members as songwriters and collaborators, and it's part of that unit of the four, but I think part of the reality is, at the core of the songwriting, it’s really Bono and the Edge,” Neville points out. “Edge is the man that writes sketches all the music and Bono sketches all the lyrics, and I think people don't talk about U2 and songwriting, oddly enough, in a big way. U2 have really been a songwriting duo at its core, like a lot of great songwriting duos, and we've never really shone a light on that. … I think the initial ambition — the instinct from Bono, really — was, ‘Can we just have a moment about the specialness of this creative and personal collaboration between these two guys?’”
A Sort of Homecoming and Songs of Surrender are part of a larger stock-taking moment in U2’s career, or certainly Bono's career. This era also includes the frontman’s five-years-in-the-making autobiography, Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story, and related live one-man show, “Stories of Surrender”; the greatest-hits Vegas residency that U2, sans the recovering Mullen, will begin this fall at the Venetian’s new mega-venue MSG Sphere; and even U2’s Joshua Tree anniversary tours in 2017 and 2019. At the Orpheum, Bono drolly explained, “We wanted to make some sense of our band, but as Freud said, the one race that might be impervious to psychoanalysis are the Irish. I think for us, it was great to see our city and our country through [Letterman’s] eyes … and I suppose see ourselves reach near-adulthood!”
But interestingly, in the first few minutes of A Sort of Homecoming, the Edge actually tells Letterman that he doesn't like to look backward. Neville assures, “I do know U2 have a ton of music in the can, and I think there is going to be a lot of new music coming,” but claims the Edge didn’t have a problem revisiting U2’s decades-old catalog in this particular context.
“Bono made a joke onstage at the Orpheum about the Edge, saying something like, ‘If it was up to Edge, he'd still be remixing our first album,’” Neville chuckles. “Edge is kind of a legendary tinkerer. But I think in a way, the fact that they were rerecording songs and rewriting lyrics [most notably on “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” updated to reflect Ireland’s current political landscape], it scratched that itch of unfinished business, more than just a kind of pure looking back. … I think that was the instinct for them — that yes, it is retrospective, but it’s also making something new that felt satisfying to them. … Bono said it's like hearing Sinatra do ‘My Way’ at age 40 and then hearing him do it at age 70. There's a different perspective, wisdom, and maturity you bring to a subject or a song that transforms it. And I think it gets to be both things now. It's not either/or. All of these versions can exist.”
During Bono’s Orpheum Q&A, the singer admitted, “There's a sort of selfish part of this project, where we wanted to hear our own songs again, almost as if for the first time, because [there was] the question of could they survive without the firepower of the big old rock band at full force. We didn't know the answer to that.” Neville’s footage of Bono and the Edge’s Letterman-emceed, semi-acoustic Ambassador Cinema show — featuring local musicians, including Once star, Frames/Swell Season member, and avowed U2 fanboy Glen Hansard — proves the answer to that question is yes. The result is very different from 1988’s overblown and indulgent tipping-point U2 documentary Rattle and Hum, which Neville stresses included “some incredible live stuff” but admittedly got “a little Spinal Tap-ish” and “kind of self-serious,” saying: “That doc, I think, catches a band at probably their most awkward. And I think because of the reception of all that, that's when they decided to — as Glen Hansard says [in A Sort of Homecoming], ‘put the tongue in the cheek,’ and figure out how to embrace their rock stardom [during the more ironic, self-aware eras of Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop].
“That’s one thing I thought a lot about,” Neville continues, threading U2 and Letterman stories like the great storyteller that Bono praised onstage at the Orpheum. “There are two journeys here. U2 started with utter earnestness, and discovered irony along the way. And Dave Letterman started as an utterly ironic person, and discovered sincerity along the way. … I think who Dave is now is a much warmer, emotional creature that he never was before, you know? He got emotional as he watched himself at the premiere, and he hasn't watched himself onscreen for a very, very long time. I know he was touched, because he told me that, and other people told me that. So, I feel like the Dave I got was a deep, emotionally open person, who was kind of the perfect vehicle to tell [U2’s] story. I think both of them have been on this journey of kind of figuring out what role sincerity and what role irony have in their lives. I think there is something unexpectedly simpatico about how they all fit together.”
That’s a wonderful, satisfyingly closure-generating sentiment, but just like Neville ended A Sort of Homecoming with Letterman’s “Forty Foot Man”-soundtracked swimming scene, Yahoo Entertainment is letting the 75-year-old comic legend have the last word here.
“Let me wax, or perhaps wane, poetically,” a visibly moved Letterman said onstage at the Orpheum, right after watching A Sort of Homecoming on the big screen. “I’ve been in television and this sort of thing since I was 18, and at this stage in my life, to have been a part of this… tonight's the first time I’ve seen it, and it’s just a gift. What a lovely piece of work. I'm so pleased and so proud. I don't know how it happened exactly, and I don’t know why it happened, but this kind of makes the first 35 years of being in television well worth the effort.
“A few years ago [in 2000], I had quintuple bypass surgery, and I was as scared as a person is supposed to be,” said Letterman, who shares a bond with U2 in that way as well (Bono underwent an eight-hour heart operation in 2016). “And what I discovered after that process was, the people who performed the surgery, many of whom have become my lifelong friends, were so good at what they did that I thought to myself, ‘This is the way people need to be in all aspects of life.’ And this is going to sound picky, but I have the same feeling when I watch [Bono and the Edge] work. You don't run into people like this. These are very, very smart artists. And to be in the presence of that, in any form, was a delightful awakening.”
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