It’s been easy to hate on U2 as they went from being one of the biggest bands in the 1980s to the biggest band on the planet, impossible to ignore, whether from their hit songs in constant rotation on nearly every radio station to frontman Bono and his neverending supply of sunglasses appearing next to heads-of-state in promotion of some charity or foundation. But your hatred has nothing on the seething, regret-filled hateshame that Neil McCormick has for Paul “Bono” Hewson.
You see, when they were all teenagers in small-town Ireland, McCormick and his brother Ivan were all friends with Hewson (pre-one-name moniker years) and the rest of the guys who would end up forming U2. In fact, as they were forming their respective unions, it was Hewson who wanted Ivan to be their lead guitarist, but Neil managed to keep this information from his brother so that he’d stay with him in his band. At the time in the 1970s when they were competing for a chance to play in the school’s auditorium, this didn’t seem like a big deal at all. Who knew that Hewson’s band was going to end up being U2? As you can imagine, though, that knowledge that you could’ve been a multi-millionaire musician at the height of the profession would end up being a bit of a drag, to say the least.
Thus is the conflict at the center of Killing Bono, a surprisingly solid little flick anchored by excellent performances all around, especially from lead Ben Barnes who stars as Neil McCormick. Neil is one of those guys who continues to make the same exact mistakes over and over and over and they always cause him excessive grief yet he never learns from them. It’s rather maddening, actually. His voice of reason tends to come from his own brother, Ivan (Robert Sheehan), to whom he never listens, of course. But, at the same time, it’s hard not to root for this guy who is clearly talented and driven, whose only goal is to become a successful band that makes it on their own, somehow managing to take on the music world by stepping out from U2’s huge shadow. It’s an admirable, if unlikely, goal, as every time they get close, they take a step back as U2 continues its meteoric rise. And even more bittersweet and heartbreaking as McCormick’s own ego won’t allow him to accept any fig leaves from Bono, who is portrayed superbly by Martin McCann as a humble musician who is just as surprised at his own fame and fortune as anyone else.
McCann had a rather small on-screen role as Bono, but his performance was crucial to the film. He looked a ton like him, yet didn’t do an impersonation. He played him not as Bono but as Paul Hewson, which made him a real person not this giant rock god that everyone sees him as. This is crucial because that’s exactly the point of the movie and so if he had played him pompous or pretentious, it wouldn’t have worked at all. McCormick’s unquenched desire to beat Bono at his own game rather than collaborate with him in order to achieve his success ends up being his downfall in more ways than one. Because we see Bono as such a decent guy, McCormick’s quixotic quest ends up being even more pointless, that elusive rockstardom much closer than he would allow himself to realize due to career-crushing pride.
Director Nick Hamm’s flick ably mixes in plenty of humor to keep everything rather light and fun, never getting all that dark despite what the title would suggest. And while much of the first two acts move along quickly, Killing Bono suffers a bit from ROTKitis: a case of the multiple endings. In the end, the impact of the film gets diluted from the multiple storylines taking forever to culminate, slowed down by them all needing their own scenes to tie up their loose ends rather than using a combined finale that brings everything together.
Based on a true story, it’s safe to say that McCormick doesn’t kill Bono. This isn’t some sort of revisionist history a la Inglourious Basterds. He even fails at that. Even though it ends on a high note – accentuated by the ridiculous and comical final frames and titles — all of the missed chances and bad decisions that caused them to not only not be in U2 but not even be remotely as famous or successful (even now with a feature film about their fruitless endeavors), there’s still something heartbreaking about seeing someone squander so much talent and opportunity. While we pity Neil, it’s truly crushing for Ivan who had no idea how close he was to being in the biggest band in the world. Thankfully, there’s a great moment between Ivan and Bono where they talk about how they had just been kids and there’s no way any of them could know they’d become as huge as they had. And when given a chance again, no way Ivan would’ve chosen them over his own brother. Just as U2’s success was admittedly a huge amount of luck, it was that same flip-of-a-coin that prevented the McCormicks from an equal fate. Well, at least for Ivan. Neil was doomed from the get-go. There’s some sort of solace in that.
As a writer who dabbled in the world of touring rock bands, the one thing that Killing Bono solidifies that I had already learned was that unless you really, really want it, you’ll never get it. And even then, you probably won’t. So you’d better love playing music more than you love having money, an apartment, a car, and money. If those things are more important to you or are your ultimate goals, you’re better off trying to be a writer. That’s how hard it is to be in a successful rock band. Trust me: as a writer who has yet to get paid for it, that’s saying a lot. And seeing the Brothers McCormick living off cans of food in an apartment with no heat, doing their best to put together gigs and find musicians to be in their band, it’s clear that these guys want nothing more than to be rockers. In that sense, they did all they could to make it – and they did, getting a record deal and going on tour as a signed band. Somewhere Dave Mustaine is watching this movie sobbing, intermittently catching his breath to scream, “ME TOO!” at the screen while throwing knives at his Kill Em All dartboard.
Unfortunately, just as it is now, being on a major label still doesn’t mean you’ve made it, even if your music rocks. And the music in Killing Bono is solid, being just as believable as 80s rock as the actors are as 80s rockers. Sadly, from what I could tell, it’s not music from the McCormicks’ actual band, which is too bad. After seeing this, I’m curious what they sounded like. Hamm’s film looks and sounds the part, making this feel like it all happened even if there’s a clear cinematic, narrative device at play involving a local gangster and the whole “killing Bono” aspect. But it works. That said, it could use another touch of editing. Besides the slightly long cut, there are a few moments that feel just choppy, unfinished, like when Neil gets outed as having banged the label president’s wife on tour. Otherwise, the gritty camera style fits the story and the location, which was all located in Northern Ireland – a cold, damp environment that makes Seattle look like Phoenix.
A cynical, darker cousin to Almost Famous, Killing Bono scratches a similar itch. While not nearly as memorable as the former, it’s still a fun time at the movies, showing how not glamorous much of the music industry is for most bands, and that while you have to work your ass off to get what you want, there’s always an element of luck that accompanies the end results.