Rock critic Neil McCormick had inside access to the one of the biggest stories in music history, and wrote about it in his 2003 memoir I Was Bono’s Doppelgänger, which was all about growing up in Dublin and playing music alongside the guys who went on to form U2. McCormick started his own band back then with his brother Ivan, and the two slugged away for a decade trying to find a sound and a style that would break big, while their buddies—who originally wanted Ivan to be the fifth member of U2—conquered the world without visibly breaking a sweat. McCormick’s book is funny, detailing the ins and outs of the ’80s UK pop scene, with its dodgy managers, remote venues, and inexplicable overnight sensations. But there’s a difference between “funny” and “comedy,” and the movie adaptation of Killing Bono tries way too hard to be nutty, at the expense of just getting across what McCormick knows.
Director Nick Hamm and a team of screenwriters go for the obvious jokes, showing the McCormick brothers making fun of the boys in U2 for adopting strange stage names, and showing Bono (played by Martin McCann) trying on a pair of sunglasses while mocking the idea that anyone would ever jump around onstage wearing something so dorky. Then the movie goes even broader once Neil (Ben Barnes) and Ivan (Robert Sheehan) move to London, and meet a procession of loony characters, while they wear ever-sillier fashions. The humor in Killing Bono is almost all of the winking variety, based on historical hindsight. The film is also dragged down by Barnes’ over-the-top performance, and by a tedious subplot involving the McCormick brothers’ debt to a local criminal.
And that’s a shame, because the central idea of Killing Bono is so poignant. These Irishmen all started out as amateurs, with the same dreams and the same shot, yet one band sorted out its business early, while the other kept changing its look and making dumb mistakes. Killing Bono is at its best when it’s at its simplest, as when the McCormicks are rehearsing for their big industry showcase on the day of Live Aid, wondering why they aren’t being introduced by Jack Nicholson in front of a crowd of 100,000 people. All Neil ever wanted to do was “form a band and release a series of groundbreaking albums.” Why did that have to be so hard?