Heavily adapted from the memoirs of Telegraph rock critic, Neil McCormick, Killing Bono starts thrillingly, before falling into the frustrating, unpleasant space between fact and fiction.
Its opening is both promising and entirely made up. In 1987, Neil (Ben Barnes) careens through the streets of Dublin, which are draped with posters teasing an exclusive launch party for The Joshua Tree, the latest album from U2. In between swerves, he breaks the fourth wall, staring at the camera as we hear of his thwarted dreams. “I always knew I’d be famous,” he crows, but little did he know that it would be his two classmates, Paul Hewson (Martin McCann) and David Evans (Mark Griffin), later known as Bono and The Edge, that would take on the world. However, tonight, on the eve of the release of their biggest selling album, he would steal the limelight. He is going to kill Bono.
With its gaudy, hyper-real cinematography and Barnes’ loopy, exaggerated performance, there are hints that we’re in for something tense and twisted with this story of obsession. But we’re soon dragged back to the late 70s, back to the boys’ school days, where Neil sets up a band to rival the stars-to-be, and poaches his brother, Ivan McCormick (Robert Sheehan), from under proto-U2’s noses.
While bearing the fingerprints of veteran writers, Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement (Porridge, The Commitments, and more recently, The Bank Job), the script feels overcooked, as if it was endlessly redrafted, with each change further removing any hint of a heartbeat. This is no more evident than in the representation of music, supposedly one of the aspects that a film such as Killing Bono should at least try to get right.
At times, it’s unclear whether the filmmakers even understand how the music world operates, as U2 go from local clubhouse to debut album to million-selling chart topper in a short run of scenes. Meanwhile, the McCormick’s efforts aren’t borne out by anything as boring as performance or composition (some of their bandmates have neither names nor lines), with focus given more to their increasingly absurd fashion sense, which looks like an accident in a nostalgia factory, at times Dexys Midnight Runners-style dungarees, at others Duran Duran, later settling on an odd mix of Withnail and Michael Hutchence.
However, if the film isn’t about the music, it isn’t entirely satisfying in any other regard. As a comedy, it is limp, and its attempts towards drama are laughable. For instance, Ivan initially doesn’t realise how close he was to stardom, which is, of course, a secret that will, at a crucial point, be exposed and threaten the brothers’ relationship. Although, that’s accepting that the Irish mobsters, who were conned into investing in the McCormicks’ doomed musical venture, don’t get to them first.
But the brothers just don’t convince. Sheehan, best known as Irish loudmouth Nathan in Misfits, is lumbered with delivering the majority of the film’s remarkable cliché quota, which just serves to strangle his natural charm. Barnes may fare a little better, but both characters suffer from the same affliction: they’re stuck in a narrative made up of anecdotes, which, irrespective of their veracity, comes off as unlikely.
The script merely seems satisfied to punch in on key dates throughout the 80s, with little regard for either characterisation or the motivation behind the boys’ perseverance. There’s an unfortunate gig, scheduled the same day as the Pope visits Dublin, and another that clashes with Live Aid. There’s also a line-up of caricatured supporting characters, headed up by Peter Serafinowicz’s music executive and, most unfortunately, what is Pete Postlethwaite’s final screen credit, as the boys’ outrageously homosexual landlord.
Even the end credits revelation that Neil later found his calling in journalism seems too neat, even if that is the one of the few truths at the film’s heart. However, no number of archive photographs or home videos can excuse lazy execution.
It is a shame, but after its intriguing opening, Killing Bono squanders all of its promise.
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