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Film Reviews

Where The Screens Have No Shame: Killing Bono Reviewed
Terry Staunton , March 30th, 2011 09:32

The story of bad wannabe rock stars becomes an equally bad film. Terry Staunton finds himself stuck in a movie he can’t wait to get out of

David Essex OD-ed in his Spanish castle when success became too scary to handle in Stardust, Noddy Holder and Jim Lea fell out big time at the end of Flame, and lovable midwest moptops The Wonders knocked it on the head after just one hit record in That Thing You Do!. That’s enough spoilers for one article, but it should come as no surprise to readers that the final minutes of Killing Bono, another film about seeking rock star fame and fortune, do not do what they say on the tin.

Ultimately, Killing Bono doesn’t do much of anything at all, unless you count making the viewer list the many ways 114 minutes could have been better spent. Dramatised music films can be a tricky prospect, their writers and directors prone to lumber from one incredulous cliche to the next if they’re not especially first-hand familiar with the territory, but the first three examples above got it spot on. Yet, the flailing fourth is the only one that’s supposedly not a fiction.

Based on the memoir I Was Bono’s Doppelgänger by Daily Telegraph music writer Neil McCormick, Killing Bono purports to be the true story - albeit a filmically exaggerated one - of how Neil and his brother Ivan came this close to joining U2 while still at school. Having missed getting in on the ground floor with future global superstars, they move to London to become famous in their own right, only to find their progress hampered by a succession of obstacles and indignities. The fact that they’re totally useless plays a part as well.

Even before it opened, the film was being met with fair amount of resistance. U2, and their (to many) pompous frontman in particular, are easy targets and probably endure more brickbats than accolades these days, while McCormick himself is continually derided for the frequency with which he’s mentioned his links to the band in his journalism over the years. All might have been forgiven, however, if the movie turned out to be a good ‘un, but it most definitely is not.

As Neil and Ivan respectively, Ben Barnes and Robert Sheehan come across like The Chuckle Brothers impersonating Bob Geldof, a pair of clueless wannabes unhindered by even a shred of cool. You could argue that the real Neil is brave to allow himself to be portrayed as such a prize knob, but surely the viewer is supposed to root for the lead characters? To will them to make it to the top, and not want to grab them by the lapels and give them a resounding slap?

The script doesn’t seem to know where it’s going, never mind how to get there; moments of relatively convincing pathos involving wrong turns and missed opportunities are constantly undermined by broad stabs at comedy, with cartoon-like stereotypical supporting characters shoehorned into the narrative. Peter Serafinowicz is a fine comic actor, but his egomaniacal white-suited record company arsehole is like something from an abandoned Fast Show sketch. Pete Postlethwaite is an even better actor, and it’s painful to watch him in his last role as the kind of predatory nudge-nudge gay not seen since Dick Emery was a Saturday night telly fixture.

Females are criminally underwritten, not least one of Neil’s girlfriends, who tells him at one point “I swore I’d never get involved with someone on the scene again, but I’m crap with promises.” The scene, ferchrissake!

Curiously, the only actor who emerges with any credibility is the title character. In the opening half-hour, Martin McMann plays the young Paul Hewson with just the right balance of earnestness and naive enthusiasm, while everyone around him is hamming it up like the cast of Hollyoaks after a long liquid lunch. We, the viewers, are glad to see him make it, while the brothers McCormick stutter from one failure to the next.

Anyone who followed music through the 80s and 90s will also be irked by hiccups in the timeline. Admittedly, there’s nothing truly major to get annoyed with, but when you see Neil and Ivan walk past a gig poster for a band who aren’t due to form for another three years it tends to stick in the mind. It’s something that could have been so easily remedied, surely, by any one of the four screen writers credited – two of whom have always been considered safe pairs of hands.

Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais cut their teeth on beautifully constructed “buddy” TV sitcoms Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? and Porridge, so one might expect they’d be able to write a convincing rapport between the McCormicks, as they did for Bob and Terry, or Fletch and Godber. Arguably, the difficulty Barnes and Sheehan (the former is supremely annoying, by way) have in making their scenes work is that the words on the page are stilted and pedestrian.

Also, it’s not as if Clement and La Frenais are working outside of their big screen comfort zone, having penned both The Commitments and Still Crazy, two films about bands and the music biz full of charm and genuinely likeable characters. The writers have already shown they can deliver entirely believable scenarios against a backdrop of starry-eyed ambition, which leads to the suspicion that their involvement here might have been an 11th hour damage limitation script polish. In the end, though, Killing Bono remains an unsalvagable mess.

The notion of one wannabe’s failure being inversely proportional to another’s success should be awash with comic potential, while also making a few interesting “what if?”-type points along the way. Is there some unseen controlling power that has determined Neil will forever be the yin to Bono’s yang? Should another platinum disc for The Joshua Tree coincide with Neil being ripped off by yet another unscrupulous manager of a rundown basement club? It’s a train of thought nobody involved in Killing Bono seems keen to board, and that’s a shame.

Of course, the B-word in the movie’s title may be enough by itself to dissuade some punters from parting with their dosh at the box office, and even if you couldn’t give a hoot about U2 you’ll find yourself caring even less about the boys who might have been.