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Killing Bono – Film Review

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Killing Bono - Ben Barnes, Pete Postlethwaite and Robert Sheehan
Neil McCormick (Ben Barnes), landlord Karl (Pete Postlethwaite) and Ivan McCormick (Robert Sheehan), looking very New Romantic at a 1980s party © 2011 ARC Entertainment

Killing Bono is a bittersweet comedy about teenage band members who have the misfortune to be schoolmates with the foursome who would go on to become U2. The movie chronicles how singer Neil McCormick (played by Prince Caspian’s Ben Barnes) made one self-destructive career mistake after another, thanks to the pride, arrogance and against-all-odds optimism he equates with artistic integrity. Seeing his former friends attain worldwide fame and incredible success makes his failures even more frustrating.

Although very loosely based on events chronicled in the real McCormick’s autobiographical memoir, a fictional framing device added to the screenplay ruins the fun by taking the book’s symbolic title literally. This flaw is especially disappointing considering that two of the movie’s three writers, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, cowrote the screenplay for the excellent 1991 birth-of-a-band classic The Commitments (with the book’s author Roddy Doyle).

Killing Bono begins with a miserable McCormick bringing a handgun to a mobbed 1987 appearance by U2 to promote their then-new album “The Joshua Tree.” Before McCormick can fire, the story flashes back to the late-1970s high school days when McCormick and the future U2-ers were forming their separate bands.

Killing Bono - Robert Sheehan and Krysten Ritter
Ivan McCormick (Robert Sheehan) and band manager Gloria (Krysten Ritter) get ready to go on the road © 2011 ARC Entertainment

Creating that incredibly inappropriate never-happened scene for an otherwise lightweight tale about luckless losers seems incredibly tasteless, especially considering that another scene makes reference to John Lennon’s murder. It’s also offensive, in that it goes way beyond the usual “dramatic license” liberties taken by movies of this sort. Making up a horny record-label owner’s wife who never existed (which this film also does) pales in comparison to pretending that the lead character contemplated an assassination.

The rest of the film consists of the painful personal odyssey that the real-life McCormick has described as “13 years of missed chances, blown deals, bad judgment and worse luck.” But the biggest regret of the movie’s McCormick never happened in reality: preventing his guitarist brother Ivan (Robert Sheehan) from becoming a member of U2. When teenage Bono (Martin McCann) privately tells Neil he wants to enlist Ivan as his own group’s second guitarist, Neil’s resentful reaction makes Bono back off. While this makes for an interesting plot device, the fact that it never actually occurred is annoying.

Neil’s second biggest mistake is hooking up financially with a violent Irish gangster who expects a return on his investment. The McCormicks spend years on his dime in a London loft landlorded by the flamboyantly gay Karl (Pete Postlethwaite, in his final film role). Sexy neighbor Gloria (Krysten Ritter), a classic ’80s girl with big jet-black hair and wonderfully way-too-much makeup, becomes the group’s manager and Neil’s girlfriend.

Killing Bono has its moments, such as when Neil twice realizes he has scheduled crucial gigs on the worst possible dates: once when the Pope visits Ireland, and later on the day of the Live Aid concerts. But this low-budget affair never comes close to the humorous heights of This Is Spinal Tap, or the Bad News segments of the British TV series The Comic Strip Presents.

[Rating: 2.5 stars]

The movie opens Friday November 4, 2011 in New York, Friday November 11, 2011 in Los Angeles and in other regions has already opened (UK release was April 1, 2011).