Although there was plenty of star wattage at the 25th Palm Springs International Film Festival Saturday night there was even more electricity than usual because some genuine rock royalty was in attendance. U2’s Bono and The Edge were on hand to accept the Sonny Bono Visionary Award, which acknowledged their major humanitarian work as well as their iconic musical contributions to the world. The award was well-timed as, like the rest of the honorees, they also have a song that is making waves this awards season. And it’s a very personal one. The band, and particularly Bono, had a long friendship with Nelson Mandela — who died December 5 — and their work in the anti-apartheid movement goes back to their beginnings as a band in the 1970s. And now they have written a song, “Ordinary Love” for the film of his life story, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom. The Weinstein Company is hoping it will get the Oscar recognition that has eluded U2 before. They currently have a Golden Globe nomination for it, their sixth, with one win for 2002’s “The Hands That Built America” from Gangs Of New York.
That song also represented their sole Oscar nomination to date, but that could change with this powerful and intimate tune that brings out the humanity in Mandela and manages to be a love song of a very different sort as it also explores the toll taken on his marriage to Winnie Mandela. It was a challenging assignment and one that came as they were under heavy pressure to complete a new album. But Nelson Mandela is hard to ignore, and so is Harvey Weinstein, who Bono says was actually a promoter for the band in 1981. The singer says he hasn’t changed. “Harvey is remarkable. And he has the same fire in his belly now that he did back then,” he told me as I sat down to interview him and The Edge before taking the stage to moderate a discussion with them and Mandela stars Idris Elba and Naomie Harris for the PSIFF’s Talking Pictures series that followed a Sunday morning screening of the film. They received a standing ovation when I introduced them to the sold-out house at the Annenberg Museum. But first in a secluded patio area behind the theater, they told me how the song came about and what it means to them.
Deadline: You’ve written for many movies before, but what made this one so special — particularly with the pressure of writing about someone like Nelson Mandela?
Bono: You don’t want to let him down. Our first thought when they asked us was, “Can we do it?” We had some time, but it meant putting our album back a bit, and there was some worry with the management about that. But it’s one of those things you can’t turn down, actually. And although there were some butterflies and a little bit of nausea, we just felt we had to do it, but not to blow it. We thought they would probably want a big anthem or one of those political songs. That just felt too obvious for us. But we were so surprised to discover that the film, as well as being a big historical drama that it has to be, is made much more interesting by being a love story — a very complicated love story, but a love story.
The Edge: And that’s the emotional part that we picked up as we saw the film. We realized that while politics were, and are , so important and couldn’t be more relevant it was that human part of the story where the film went. So we followed it and it made perfect sense from an emotional point of view to follow their relationship.
Deadline: You’ve said the title “Ordinary Love” works on a couple of levels.
Bono: Even when he started out his own political life as an armed insurrection it was never his first choice, and when he saw it up close, the ugliness of it and when he saw what it did to the people who committed the violence, he fought against his own party, against the ANC, against his best friends, to make peace. He didn’t want to become a monster to defeat a monster, and so “Ordinary Love” is also an appeal to South Africa. So it works in the personal and it works in the political. That’s why we took it in the central image of the song. The rest of the lyrics were inspired by the letters of Nelson to Winnie Mandela. Anant Singh , the producer, sent them to me. And reading them the language is so beautifully archaic. He’s such a gentlemen. He talks about kissing her photograph in the prison cell. He talks in a very tender way to her. Very old school. And clearly words meant a lot to him. And indeed in my own conversations with him over the years he would always talk about writers. He loved the Irish writers, George Bernard Shaw; he loved the Anglo-Irish literary renaissance. He had the complete works of William Shakespeare smuggled to him in his prison cell in a Koran. They were only allowed religious books. The idea of Shakespeare coming in like a drug deal (laughs). … This film is about two transformations: his from a badass to this global statesman and Winnie’s from this very sweet girl to a bit of a monster. And Winnie came to the premiere in South Africa and stood by Naomie Harris’ portrayal of her because it was truthful. I think she’s an extraordinary woman. But it’s two transformations that are the inverse of each other.
The Edge: And obviously the other take away for me from the movie is this supernatural ability to forgive that he had and the wisdom to know that the only possible way forward for South Africa was truth and reconciliation, not vengeance. There’s that great quote of his: “I want vengeance too, but I want a country that my children can live in more.” That’s the important thing here. That level of insight and wisdom came to him during those years in prison and by reading extensively and pondering the situation and doing it in a very cool headed way.
Deadline: Do you like writing for film?
Bono: It’s a holiday from the first-person for me. We really like writing for other people for the same reason. I remember writing for Willie Nelson and Roy Orbison. It’s so wonderful to get out of your own head.
The Edge: To take a love song is easier as well. Suddenly you’ve got an inspiration that is fresh. We always approach it the same way, to take the emotional core and fleshing it out from there.
Bono: And to try and make it a love song to the South African landscape as well. It really is the most extraordinarily beautiful place on earth. (Recites) “The sea wants to kiss the golden shore/The sunlight warms your skin/All the beauty that’s been lost before/Wants to find us again/I can’t fight you anymore/It’s you I’m fighting For/The sea throws rock together/But time leaves us polished stones/We can’t reach any higher/If we can’t deal with ordinary love.
Deadline: Harvey Weinstein was once your promoter. How persuasive was he in making this all happen?
Bono: He is a very hard man to turn down. And it was family time in our house. We have very strict rules about having family time and I was sneaking out on my family to work on the song. And then Harvey actually arrives while we were on holiday in France. He says, “So where’s the song?” He arrives in the house! And I said to him, “We need a few more weeks; this is one we can’t blow.” And to be fair to Harvey, he said, ‘OK, I will tell them they just have to wait.” So he broke all the rules for us. … We just wanted to make it a very emotional moment to bring people back to the heart of the film, which is a human heart. That’s more complicated than any political situation.
Deadline: How difficult has it been to promote the song since his death came just as the movie had opened?
Bono: It’s No. 1 in about 15 countries without any promotion. We can’t really go out and launch it, though. It’s interesting because you want to go out and shout from the rooftops if you’ve got one of these tunes. They don’t come all the time. But we can’t.
The Edge: To me it’s just so amazing how things worked out. It’s almost to me that Madiba stage managed this entire thing. You think about this film that is coming out on his life. He was so aware of the delicacy of what’s going on in South Africa. You couldn’t tee up a better way to spotlight his politics and his legacy and focus the world’s attention on what he’s achieved politically in South Africa. That is the best way to pave a way for the future.
Bono: It was almost like perfect timing in a way.
Here is U2’s tribute reel to the memory of Nelson Mandela with the song, “Ordinary Love”: