Killing Bono (2011)
“Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n Roll Rivalry”
Director: Nick Hamm
Cast: Ben Barnes, Robert Sheehan, Krysten Ritter
Synopsis: Two brothers attempt to become global rock stars but can only look on as old school friends U2 become the biggest band in the world.
Based on an autobiography by rock critic Neil McCormick, Killing Bono looks on paper as if it will be one of those lively, energetic movies that will carry you along on its enthusiasm. But on film it’s something of a disappointment. The humorous edge that apparently made the book a success is almost completely lacking throughout. This could perhaps be down to the writing duo of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. Theirs has been a prolific and fruitful partnership that dates back to the mid-1960s, and that is where the problem lies, I think. Both men were well into their seventies when they wrote Killing Bono (and were in their forties when the events depicted took place) and so they almost inevitably fail to convincingly capture the language and attitudes of their youthful protagonists.
Ben Barnes plays the young McCormick, an exuberant Dublin boy with a love of music who, like a million other teenagers, dreams of making it big in the music business. He scoffs at the decision of his friend Paul Hewson (Martin McCann), who will later become rock superstar Bono, to audition for a rival school band called The Hype, and organises a rival band of his own. When his younger brother Ivan (Robert Sheehan) successfully auditions as a guitarist for Hewson’s band, Neil turns down the position on his behalf — and without his knowledge.
There then follows ten tortuous years filled with a series of setbacks and disasters as the McCormick brothers try to emulate the success of U2, who quickly become one of the world’s biggest bands. Their failure to make any headway in the world of music fuels Neil’s guilt over how he ruined Ivan’s chance of a rock star lifestyle, and even when their band, Shook Up, begin to enjoy modest success on the road, Neil’s obsession with making it big without the help of Bono and his mates succeeds in snatching away any chances of success.
In addition to the events summarised in the preceding paragraphs, there’s a couple of sub-plots: Neil obtains the backing of a vicious Dublin gangster who threatens to turn nasty when he fails to see any return on the money he has ploughed into the band, and Neil begins a relationship with Erika, an American who lives next door in a building owned by flamboyantly gay landlord Karl (a clearly ailing Pete Postlethwaite in his final film role).
I don’t know how much of what takes place on-screen actually happened, but given the unlikeliness of a large number of the incidents, the likelihood is that vaguely recognisable elements of truth remain in the finished piece of work. Despite lively and likeable leads from Barnes and Sheehan, the film resolutely refuses to come alive and has a half-hearted feel to it throughout. That this is down to the writing (and the pedestrian direction of Nick Hamm) is indisputable.
McCormick is portrayed as a self-delusional loser for the entire length of the film — something he surely couldn’t have had in mind when he wrote his book — repeatedly making stupid decisions that any normal person would never make. U2 want you to support them in front of 5000? Turn it down in favour of playing to a handful. A record company wants to buy your song for Rod Stewart? Scornfully reject them because Stewart’s too old. Fully aware that screwing the manager’s wife will spend the end of your association with the band you created just as it’s starting to enjoy some modest measure of success? Screw her anyway. In the face of all this stupidity, it’s a credit to Ben Barnes that he manages to keep McCormick likeable no matter how annoying he becomes.
The story lacks originality, and takes cheap shots at humour that never work. It’s only as things start to come to a head in the final act, when a Dublin concert by U2 coincides with the near-implosion of the McCormicks’ band, that the movie starts to gain some momentum and stops looking like a loosely connected collection of incidents thrown at the screen. But by then most viewers will have long since lost interest.