Just hearing the name “Bono” can send me into a fist-shaking rage. So you can imagine how hopeful I was when I first heard the title, “Killing Bono.” Despite having plenty of guns, drugs and danger, the film isn’t really all that dark. It’s only slightly more black a comedy than the most angst-ridden number in “High School Musical.” Still, it’s an enjoyable film, even if the title doesn’t pay off in quite the way I’d hoped.
In 1976 Dublin, a tiny, ambitious lad named Paul Hewson holds a band audition in an equally tiny garage. Paul wants Ivan McCormick to be part of the lineup, but, for some reason, he first runs it by Ivan’s brother, Neil. Neil has already figured Ivan into his own plans for stardom and turns down the offer on Ivan’s behalf. How could he know that Paul Hewson would become Bono and the band, then called The Hype, would become U2? As Neil and Ivan watch U2 become an Irish national treasure, the brothers struggle in obscurity, always overshadowed by the accomplishments of their former schoolmates. All the while, Ivan is completely clueless to the fact that his brother prevented him from joining one of the biggest bands in the world.
For my money, the music of the McCormick Brothers/Shook Up is far superior to that of U2. It’s interesting, edgy and peppered with hints of Joy Division and the Ramones. When they’re on stage, the brothers are legitimately having a blast. They rock out without a hint of self-consciousness. They are desperate for fame but it’s not as much about the money as it is being able to do what they love for a living. In contrast, U2 are in a constant state of posturing and boy-howdy are they serious. Bono has taken to martyrdom like a duck to water.
Sadly, this isn’t the story of Bono’s rise to super-douchedom. It’s about a man who is profoundly skilled at cocking things up. At times, Neil’s story turns suspiciously farcical for one that’s “based on true events.” Shook Up’s first scheduled gig is usurped by a Pope visitation. Their second gig is a dud as well, taking place at an illegal strip club. To add injury to insult, Neil decides join forces with the club’s gangster owner and digs them a £10,000 hole. Later, Neil books their big London debut gig for the same day as Live Aid. Eventually, the band earns a modicum of success, but they remain in U2’s shadow, the comparison perpetuated by an evil journalist with whom Neil used to work. Many of these tales smack of Irish embellishment. There is no way the real Neil McCormick was that incompetent or unlucky. Right? For his sake, I hope not because the Neil of the film is an annoying, bloody-minded little bastard. Even though I see where he’s coming from, he deserves far more beatings than he actually gets.
Martin McCann plays Bono a bit too modest but I’ll be damned if he isn’t the spitting image of the man. When he offers to help Neil and Ivan get noticed, he does it in such a condescending way that I almost understand why Neil turns him down. ALMOST. Neil wants success on his own terms, but his terms are pretty damned unreasonable, especially when his choices also affect his brother.
Peter Serafinowicz (“Spaced,” “Shaun of the Dead,” the voice of Darth Maul) is hilarious as usual, playing a shady record exec. Also noteworthy is the performance by Pete Postlethwaite, a man known for playing badass Irish motherfuckers. It’s his last role and he goes out on a high note. He’s completely lovable as Neil and Ivan’s campy landlord and he doesn’t kill even one person.
Despite having made “the worst decision of [his brother’s] life”, Neil does have a valid beef with U2. It’s a pretty goofy move to just, one day, change your name to Bono (or, for that matter, The Edge). Their rise to power was hard and fast while better bands struggled for years. They should have remained “The Hype” because it describes them perfectly. I get why they’re popular. They write catchy songs. But Bono isn’t exactly a wordsmith. He writes Rhyming Dictionary Arena rock. Not to mention the fact that their front man wouldn’t put a penny in a Unicef box if there weren’t cameras present to capture it. Granted, that Bono has yet to emerge in the context of the film. Movie Bono is just a super nice guy who wants to use his fame to help a brotha out. But he hasn’t got time for people who don’t appreciate him because he has plenty of people who treat him like royalty. Like I said, I completely understand why Neil is driven literally mad with jealousy.
Ivan, on the other hand, is the warm little center of the story. It’s worth sticking around just to make sure things turn out OK for him and that his brother hasn’t literally ruin his life. Ivan’s likeability is due, in no small part, to the charisma of actor Robert Sheehan. At the ripe old age of 23, Sheehan is already a master of physical comedy. Through the years, the brothers don a series of silly outfits in their attempt to nail down their look and sound. It’s not easy to look dignified when you’re dressed like Adam Ant, but Sheehan’s earnestness sells it. Sheehan brings the laughs even as he’s acting out the worst day of his character’s life. Ben Barnes isn’t terrible as Neil, but in contrast to Sheehan, there are times when his performance appears to have all the nuance of a bit player on “That’s So Raven.” Robert Sheehan is the true Irish national treasure and he must be preserved at all costs.