“Killing Bono,” with its suggestive title and darkish, “Taxi Driver“-esque opening sequence, begins with a man (Ben Barnes), complete with twisty goatee and greasy hair tumbling down his forehead, grumbling to himself about how he was robbed of fame. Instead of himself, he explains, to no one in particular, some schoolmates have risen to become international pop sensations. This, as the grumbling suggests, does not sit well with him. He sees a swarm of people and grinds his car to a halt. When he opens the door, he points a gun at a man (Martin McCann) being swarmed – he’s wearing bug-eyed sunglasses and has a sharp bob of dark hair. It’s the titular rock star. And as the screen goes black, we hear a gunshot…or maybe it’s just a camera snapping…
This sequence suggests a much bleaker and more melancholic movie than what “Killing Bono,” — its gerundive title evocative of the film’s restless energy — turns out to be. In fact, it’s a charming, warm, not-entirely-original rock ‘n’ roll comedy about the pitfalls leading up to fame and all the messy pride that goes before the fall.
Based, loosely it seems, on a nonfiction book by Irish writer Neil McCormick, the film stars Barnes as McCormick, who, with his brother Ivan (Robert Sheehan), want to be the biggest band in Europe. It’s just that, you know, their classmates, led by McCann’s Bono, have already gotten there first, rising to become the colossal U2. It would have been easy to depict Bono as a viperous, power-mad blowhard, but in early scenes, like when the two groups co-headline a small hometown gig, he comes across as an amiable frontman whose ambitions eclipse (at least early in their career) his talent.
Structurally, the movie flits forward ten years, while the McCormick brothers slave away in Ireland and, bit-by-bit, we see what a phenomenon U2 has become. Creative rivalries usually produce something grander and more sophisticated than if the artist (or artists) are working by themselves (look no further than the back-and-forth between the Beach Boys and the Beatles). But what makes the conflict in “Killing Bono” so funny is how outmatched the competition is. McCormicks’ band (whose name keeps shifting) remain relative unknowns while U2 ascend to a globally renowned position. It’s some hilarious David and Goliath shit, and the smart script (by Dick Clement, Ian La Franais and Simon Maxwell) wrings some great gags out of it, like the moment when Neil is having sex with a lovely, big-breasted girl only to be distracted by the U2 poster on the wall behind her, a black-and-white photo of his former classmate staring back at him. “Can we turn out the lights?” he suggests.
Eventually the boys decide to move to London to make a more earnest stab at fame, but they’re backed by a seedy stripclub owner/gangster and constantly menaced by his enforcer. They move into a derelict warehouse run by a gay socialite (Pete Postlethwaite, in his last screen performance, reminding us of how deeply he’ll be missed) and shared with a comely former punk-rocker Gloria (Krysten Ritter). This is both the warmest and most human section of the movie but also the one that lags the most, adding unnecessarily to the film’s overlong 114 minute run time. That’s not to say it isn’t peppered by amusing bits, like the constantly evolving look of their band (complete with glittery, son-of-Bowie eye make-up) and quippy dialogue like, “I leave you alone for five minutes and you’re snorting coke at a gay party? What would mom say?” It’s just that there isn’t enough of this stuff in the precious midsection of the movie to justify how long we spend here.
That doesn’t totally sink the picture, though, and the film eventually gets around to the Bono-in-the-crosshairs opening (it’s still not all that dark, however). As the film enters its third act, things become baggy, with the focus shifting to Neil’s horrible decision-making abilities and continual screw-ups. You feel bad for him because he wants to do the right thing; he wants to get famous on his own terms and without the assistance of someone named Bono or The Edge, but it becomes dunderheaded and repetitive at a certain point. You want him to suck up his pride and get the fuck on with it. Director Nick Hamm and his screenwriters go out of their way to make him likeable, even when he’s acting truly inane, and for the most part he’s a goofy enough hero that you go with it, but it still grates.
Still, “Killing Bono,” despite its violent title, is zippy and light and fun (but not totally toothless), despite its narrative lapses and overlong running time. It doesn’t attempt to be all that insightful (and as any kind of band biography, it’s a bust), but it does illuminate the desperate thirst for artistic success that grip so many of us. The key mistake the McCormick brothers seem to make is that they needed to be themselves, not some other band. Even if that other band is the biggest in the world. [B]