Until the End of the World, 1991
U2 were noodling around with some elements for what would become the song — now one of their signature live songs thanks to the Edge’s helicopter riff — but it wasn’t until director Wim Wenders asked the band to contribute to his globe-trotting sci-fi epic that it really started coming together.
Faraway, So Close!, 1993
Wenders returned to U2 for a contribution to his Wings of Desire sequel and came away with one of the band’s best pop songs. On a roll after Achtung Baby and working on new material in a friskier, less belabored mode, the band produced this expansive, bleeding heart love song
Short Cuts, 1993
Bono and the Edge peeled away from their rhythm section to pen this meandering, whiskey-soaked jazz song for Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. The songwriters trade in guitar-based composition for a piano-based arrangement, and they eschew familiar rhyming schemes for a blunt, conversational approach. And through the bittersweet, infinitely evocative voice of legendary singer Annie Ross, the song is unrecognizable as anything emanating from the world of U2 — except for its melancholy, longing and bruised resiliency, which was tonally in keeping with the band’s early-Nineties bent.
In the Name of the Father, 1993
Next, Bono took a break from the Edge, collaborating with English artist Gavin Friday on several contributions to Jim Sheridan’s searing, Oscar-nominated film about an unjustly incarcerated Northern Irish rebel. The title song, which opens the film, starts well within the U2 wheelhouse, as a slow-build march in the “Sunday Bloody Sunday” mold, then explodes into something simultaneously industrial and tribal, Western and Eastern, cannily evoking centuries (and continents) of political conflict, cut through with a single hammered guitar chord and Bono’s haunting promise to “follow you down.”
Batman Forever, 1995
Who could have predicted that the wannabe-camp, Titanic-meets-the-iceberg bloat of the Joel Schumacher-era Batman franchise would inspire one of U2’s best radio anthems. The song plays up both the camp (Bono in glam-trash Mephisto mode; the Russ Meyer-derived title) and the bombast (a soaring, Hollywood-romantic refrain are a guitar riff amplified by a string orchestra) while hanging it all on some of the Edge’s catchiest ever hooks. It’s an object of absurd, meaningless fun — the sort of object that would have been unthinkable during the self-serious Rattle & Hum era. Except for U2, even a toss-off isn’t really a toss-off. “You don’t know what you’re doing,” Bono goads, “Babe, it must be art.”
If U2 courted but ultimately transcended camp with “Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me,” Bono and the Edge settled for simply hitting the mark with “GoldenEye.” A perfectly serviceable James Bond theme that coasts on serving as a nostalgic vessel to classic Sixties Bond themes, the song comes complete with staccato string plucking, canned horn blasts and a bossa nova shuffle.
Beyond the Clouds, 1995
The band’s serious excursions into soundtrack work reached an apex when they recorded an entire album of songs for films — imaginary films, at that. Something of an extension of producer Brian Eno’s ongoing Music for Films project, Original Soundtracks 1 veered so far off the standard U2 path that they balked at making it an official release, slapping the name Passengers on the cover and ensuring that only a fraction of their usual audience would find it. As it turns out, the record is not only consistent with U2’s sonically playful early-Nineties output, it also showcases the band at its most musically committed, fully serving individual songs rather than notions of self-presentation.
Mission Impossible, 1996
With Bono and the Edge off doing James Bond themes, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. asserted their own film-score chops with this industrialized adaptation of the 1960s TV show theme song. The duo mine the groove for all its worth, but instead of an edgy Nineties remix of a Cold War ditty, the track plays more like an outdated holdover from Jan Hammer’s Eighties (complete with a synth-boppy, Saturday morning cartoon-worthy sub-theme at the 1:24 mark). For U2 — and for the culture at large, which saw the song reach Number Seven on the Hot 100 — these were strange days of near-peak saturation.
The Gangs of New York, 2002
Thanks to this high-profile Martin Scorsese epic and the full-court press PR tactics of Harvey Weinstein, U2 finally received an Oscar nomination after a decade of excellent soundtrack work. Too bad it was for their worst film song. An endless, over-produced, self-important dirge, “The Hand That Built America” lacks the very drama it wants to flaunt and features a shrug of a melody that seems reluctant to distract from a chorus whose schmaltzy symbolism would have benefited from distraction. What’s worse is that the song invades the finale of an otherwise great film, torpedoing a catharsis nearly three hours in the making.
Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, 2013
After receiving a 2009 Golden Globe nomination for “Winter,” a nicely restrained, lean-into-the-wind, confessional anthem from the film Brothers, U2 nabbed their second Oscar nomination for this rousing, pluralistic plea on behalf of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. There’s little surprising about the composition or instrumentation — the Edge draws from a familiar bag of tricks, and a piano insists on poignancy — except in the way that Bono’s frayed falsetto invites the column of backup voices on the chorus and earns the “we” in “we can’t deal with ordinary love.” And unlike the ball-peen hammer bluntness of “The Hands That Built America,” it’s a subtle and ultimately more effective theme song. It’s no “Until the End of the World,” but it also doesn’t need to be. As a commissioned work, the song first needs to serve the movie. What’s remarkable is how so many of these songs still managed both to serve and to expand the artistry and imagination of U2.