REVIEW: Killing Bono Tackles Fame and Failure With Mixed Comic Results
For every musical act that's made it big, there are thousands that have languished in obscurity, but when it comes to movies, it's rare that a band that comes to naught gets much screen time. Achtung Baby celebrates it's 20 year anniversary this month, and joining the chorus of reminiscences about U2's legacy and impact is Killing Bono, a slightly sour Irish comedy about not making it big directed by Nick Hamm (Godsend) and based on Neil McCormick's memoir Killing Bono: I Was Bono's Doppelganger.
That title's a misdirect -- obviously, Bono's still alive and kicking and spent last week hobnobbing with tech entrepreneurs at Dublin's exclusive founders conference, and McCormick was the man's double mostly in his own head. He was childhood friends with the boy then known as Paul David Hewson, and the two formed different bands as teenagers. Only one went on to massive rock star fame and fortune; the other did what's sometimes uncharitably described as the refuge of those who can't cut it in their creative field of choice -- McCormick is now the Telegraph's head rock critic.
It's that mean edge to Killing Bono's storytelling, none of it directed at the famous figure of the title, that makes it more than the film equivalent of someone's prize bar anecdote about the celebrity he knew (and could have been -- nay, should have been) back in the day. Young Neil (Ben Barnes, the Narnia films' Prince Caspian), a would-be lead singer who's beat out, in a friendly way, to a place in a classmate's band by the future Bono (Martin McCann), is sure he's going to be famous. So sure that he monologues about the fact as he drives through the streets of Dublin as an adult, carrying a gun and looking ragged, desperate and miles from rock stardom, at least until he happens upon U2's homecoming party.
What makes Neil so convinced he's got fame coming his way isn't any obvious surplus of talent -- we see him fronting variations of a band with his younger brother Ivan (_Misfits_' Robert Sheehan, who tends to steal the show) over the years and coming across as an adequate but chameleon-like vocalist with no strong musical identity. No, it's just a typical teenage certainty that greatness has to be on the horizon, because god knows you're not going to end up like your parents (a sentiment best blithely expressed directly in front of said parents, hopefully when they're feeding you). Killing Bono presents an interesting conundrum: How much harder would it be to let go of your improbable rock star dreams if you had proof in front of you that such success does happen for a select few? There doesn't appear to be anything extraordinary about Bono when he's starting out -- one of the better moments of the film involves him declaring to Neil and other friends on the back of the city bus after a night out that "Bono" is what he'd like to be called from here on out, and his guitar player sitting next to him saying that from now on he's going by "The Edge." Everyone laughs, the way you would if your high school bestie announced a desire to henceforth be known as "Princess Fabulous" in anticipation of a later pop persona.
U2 begins releasing records, while Neil and Ivan head down to London on money that Neil's borrowed from a local gangster without letting his brother know. Where Killing Bono tests audiences the most, and where it's perversely most interesting, is in Neil's doomed insistence on the band finding fame on its own -- he turns down multiple offers of help from Bono, from an early one in which he offers assistance in getting a record deal to a later one in which he invites them to be U2's opening act at their Dublin show. It's pride that makes Neil say no, but it's also guilt -- as teenagers, Ivan was offered a place in U2 only to have it turned down on his behalf by his brother, who wanted Ivan in his own band.
In London, Neil and Ivan starve, make some questionable '80s fashion decisions and accrue some new friends -- gay landlord Karl (Pete Postlethwaite, in his last role), former punk Gloria (Krysten Ritter) and record exec Hammond (Peter Serafinowicz) -- but it's the toxic dynamic between the siblings that's the heart of the film. Neil's not a very likable protagonist -- he's actually often awful -- but who can't relate to that nagging certainty that one's destined for great things? Letting go of that is part of growing up, but it's also part of letting go of a dream and embracing normalcy in a deflatingly non-Hollywood ending. The low-budget look of Killing Bono (one most apparent in scenes in which crowds are meant to be swarming for just a sight of U2) suits the grubby sentiment of the film, and of its ultimate realization that glitz and glamour aren't available for everyone, no matter how enticing they look.
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