Killing Bono (Blu-ray)
Directed by Nick Hamm
“I was Neil McCormick’s fan in school.
He was much cooler than me, a much better writer,
and I thought he’d make a much better rock star.”
(in his foreword to the book Killing Bono)
Don’t be fooled by the title. Killing Bono is an affectionate spin on U2’s meteoric rise as seen through the eyes of a fellow Mount Temple student who dreamed of being in a band, releasing groundbreaking albums, playing in the world’s largest stadiums, and becoming the biggest rock ‘n’ roll invasion of America since The Beatles.
It’s (loosely) based on a true story.
Pride (In the Name of Love)
A familiar shot of U2 with not-so-familiar faces
Photo: Arc Entertainment
Killing Bono is reminiscent of The Commitments. Actually, the two movies have quite a bit in common. Both movies are based on a book (in the case of Killing Bono, the book originally carried the less scandalous title I Was Bono’s Doppelganger). Both are about the allure and transformative power of being in a band; in both case, the lead actors also perform the music. Both are stories of musicians struggling to escape the plight of life in lower-class urban Dublin. Both share a similar sense of humor.
Oh, yeah. And both have screenplays co-written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais.
There’s one key sequence in The Commitments that could be considered Killing Bono’s doppelganger. It’s toward the end. Things are starting to fall into place for The Commitments; a record deal is in the wings and Wilson Pickett’s supposed to join them on stage. Instead, the band implodes.
Such is life for Neil McCormick (Ben Barnes, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian), a serial self-defeatist. Every time a big opportunity presents itself, something else gets in the way. His band finally gets a break to perform a major gig, but it winds up being on the same day the Pope comes to Dublin. (In keeping with one of the great lines in The Commitments, “The Lord blows my trumpet,” this movie has “I can’t believe the Pope f*@#ed our band.”) Even Neil’s trip to London is overshadowed by the murder of John Lennon some 3,000 miles away.
At another point, yet another big gig presents itself to Neil, only to be scheduled on the same day as Live Aid, the concert event broadcast to a global audience and featuring none other than U2. Of course, there’s also that time Bono (Martin McCann, Shadow Dancer) called Neil and asked him to open for U2 at Croke Park in Dublin. Neil, a hard-headed, proud asshole, declined the offer.
With or Without You
Killing Bono follows Neil’s rock ‘n’ roll misadventures between 1976 (when Larry Mullen first posted that now legendary notice at school about wanting to form a band) and 1987 (when U2 achieved astronomical success with The Joshua Tree).
Perhaps the biggest difference between U2 and Neil’s various efforts at establishing a band – beyond the pure commercial success factor – is the people surrounding the two groups. Neil repeatedly finds himself in the wrong hands, working with the wrong people. His “manager” is an Irish mobster who owns an illicit strip club and at one point a different party tries to push Neil’s band as the “gay U2.”
And Neil has the wrong attitude. His brother, Ivan (Robert Sheehan, Season of the Witch), had an opportunity to be in The Hype (the band which would go on to become U2). But Neil kiboshed those efforts by insisting, behind Ivan's back, Ivan was a part of his own nascent band. As his brother puts it, Neil “makes every cock-up known to man.”
Moment of Surrender
Killing Bono never got a proper theatrical release in the States, although there was that phantom screening outside Pittsburgh prior to U2’s monumental 360° performance at Heinz Field. From a certain point of view, that fits in perfectly with McCormick's other foiled attempts at fame. At least the movie has found its way to Blu-ray.
Ivan (Robert Sheehan) and Neil (Ben Barnes)
Photo: Arc Entertainment
To be clear, while Killing Bono shares some of the same spirit as The Commitments, it's not on the same par with that film or others such as Almost Famous. It’s a low budget affair with production values that at times are a little dicey, but the cast rates just fine; McCann in particular is great at portraying the younger, lower-key Bono. Barnes captures an ambitious character who grows more and more manic while his efforts at world domination are constantly thwarted; by the end of it all, he seems quite a bit like Russell Brand’s doppelganger. Throw in good doses of humor and humanity and it’s a worthwhile journey.
What’s particularly surprising is how well Bono comes across despite Neil’s maniacal desire to outdo U2 squarely on his own discombobulated terms. And it’s Bono who puts things in perspective toward the end, when he asks Ivan, “Could you have picked us over your own brother?”
As Neil’s frustration mounts, and his violent manager sends his lackey out to get him for payment of a debt, it’s totally fitting that Neil’s climactic reality check comes at a U2 party where I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For is playing and everybody’s singing along.
No, Neil didn’t find what he was looking for as a rock star. His is a tale that’s easy to relate to; it’s one of blind ambition that goes nowhere while others make it all look so easy. And this movie’s ending ties it all together with a lot of Irish heart and Dublin soul.
The disc sports two supplemental items.
One is the theatrical trailer. It’s cute that it describes the story as “true-ish.”
The other is a 22-minute behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie. It’s decent enough. Of primary interest is the effort on the part of Neil McCormick and others to dial down the reality knob from 11 to something more like 2. This is primarily a work of fiction, although it’s based on a kernel of truth, and the whole idea of “killing Bono” is purely metaphorical in its origins. Other good bits show Barnes and Sheehan in the studio with songwriter Joe Echo, recording some of the movie’s music. It’s also nice to see the late, great Pete Postlethwaite talk a bit about his career and a smidge about the inspiration behind his portrayal of Karl in this, his last movie. The featurette also includes attempts at improvisational humor during some of the interviews that come across as awkward rather than funny.
Picture and Sound
It’s hard to rate the Blu-ray’s picture quality on its own merits. The lighting choices and cinematography are at times dubious, particularly during a night club scene in which red lighting figures prominently and doesn’t photograph well. That said, the overall presentation (in approximately 2.40:1) fits the scrappy, scruffy story’s needs.
The sound (presented in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio) tends to fare a bit better, particularly during that climactic scene in which I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For carries through the walls of the club and reaches the soul.
Optional subtitles are available in the English SDH format.
How to Use This Disc
Enjoy the musical-comedy madness that is Killing Bono. To make a night of it, follow Killing Bono with a viewing of U2’s Rattle and Hum, which documents the band’s own struggles while touring in support of The Joshua Tree, and From the Sky Down, which recounts U2’s near implosion in the wake of The Joshua Tree’s enormous success.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.