What’s worse: having a dream and never coming close to it, or getting your hands on your dream and having it slip through your fingers? Neil McCormick, the subject of “Killing Bono” and the writer of the memoir upon which the film is based, would almost certainly pick the latter. Neil grew up dreaming of being a rock star. So did one of his classmates, a short but charismatic guy with cool hair named Paul Hewson. They went to the same school in Dublin and played double bills together with their respective bands: Nick with The Undertakers, Paul with The Hype. But then Paul changed his name to Bono, and his buddy David became The Edge, and The Hype became U2. As for Neil’s band, well you’ve never heard of The Undertakers, have you?
“Killing Bono” is about how it feels to be close enough to your dream to taste it but not close enough to enjoy it. Neil is so serious about becoming famous on his own merits that he refuses Bono’s repeated offers for help, even as U2 becomes one of the biggest bands in the world. Part of it is a perverse sense of pride; part of it is the fact that Neil refused to let his brother and lead guitarist Ivan join U2 back when they were still The Hype. Even worse: he never told Ivan about the offer. Knowing he kept that success from his brother — and then kept that fact a secret — gnaws away at his soul.
Dreams dashed, hope destroyed, families torn asunder; it sounds like a pretty heavy movie. And it is called “Killing Bono;” It even opens with Neil (“The Chronicles of Narnia”‘s Ben Barnes) hitting rock bottom and deciding to assassinate the lead singer of U2. But actually the title and the opening are both fake-outs; the movie is, despite its seemingly dark subject matter, a sort of absurdist comedy. Neil’s repeated career flameouts are played more for head-shaking laughs than existential angst. And even at its worst, his sibling rivalry with Ivan (Robert Sheehan) barely rises above the level of wacky, brotherly shenanigans.
To the film’s credit, that’s an interesting choice for the material, which is loosely based on real events but apparently also includes a fair amount of dramatic license. The brothers are so comically unlucky that their scuffling music career is kind of funny, particularly while they’re living on canned beans in the dilapidated flat of gay older gentlemen, played charmingly by the late Pete Postlethwaite in what ultimately turned out to be his final role. On the other hand, Neil is such a hard-headed fool, and so quick to turn down offers of support from Bono, his story is sometimes more frustrating than it is funny. Sometimes it’s hard to laugh at someone when you want to punch them in the face.
Still, Barnes and Sheehan have good chemistry together — important since they’re onscreen together in nearly every scene — and they do an impressive job on the film’s soundtrack, performing most of the music by The Undertakers and later their successors, Shook Up!, all of which is better than you’d expect from rockers that never hit the big time.
At its best, “Killing Bono” is an amusingly fluffy musical biopic. Things worked out okay in the end for the McCormick brothers, though not quite in the way they’d always dreamed (Google them if you’re curious). Things worked out okay in the end for “Killing Bono” as well. They didn’t work out great, but they turned out pretty good. I guess in this case, that’s sort of fitting.