Killing Bono: Film Review

Two rockers try to make it with or without U2 in this clever British comedy.

Adapted from rock critic Neil McCormick’s autobiography, Nick Hamm's British comedy stars Ben Barnes, Robert Sheehan and Krysten Ritter.

TAORMINA — Despite its promisingly brutal title, Nick Hamm’s Killing Bono is actually a rather tame and bittersweet rock ‘n’ roll dramedy about two brothers trying to climb out of the shadow of Ireland’s most famous band. This cleverly conceived, behind-the-scenes tale features fine lead performances and enough nods to the epic group’s early days to interest fans outside the U.K., where Paramount released in April to moderate returns. Additional tour dates should follow stops at Seattle and Taormina.

Adapted from U.K. rock critic Neil McCormick’s autobiography I Was Bono’s Doppelganger, the film follows the tragic-comic destinies of Neil (Ben Barnes) and Ivan (Robert Sheehan), a pair of music-loving bros who had the misfortune of attending high school with the future members of U2, but would never manage to rival their classmates’ success.

The film kicks off during the band’s 1987 Dublin homecoming for the release of The Joshua Tree, and then flashes back 10 years earlier to show how jealousy, missed opportunities and brotherly love all prevent Neil and Ivan from making it as big as buddies Bono (Martin McCann), The Edge (Mark Griffin) and Larry Mullen, Jr. (Sean Doyle). Laced with references to various punk-rock-pop groups of the epoch, and peppered with updates on U2’s rise to the top, there’s plenty of groupie fodder in the high concept screenplay (from Dick Clement, Ian la Frenais and Simon Maxwell) to accompany what’s otherwise a classic story about two losers chasing a fleeting dream.

When things don’t work out for them in Dublin, Neil and Ivan move to London, where they start a new band that eventually becomes a very U2-style foursome with the unfortunate name of “Shook Up.” Managed by an expat punk singer (Krysten Ritter) and signed to the label of a zany record exec (Peter Serafinowicz), they play one dive bar after another until slowly grabbing the attention of critics and fans. Just when that happens, Bono pops back into the picture to offer them the gig of a lifetime, and his hit song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” takes on a whole new significance.

There’s not one but two plots at work here: the first chronicling U2’s fame vs. Shook Up’s failure, the second dealing with the brothers’ troubled relationship and endless rocker infighting. Both Barnes (The Chronicles of Narnia) and Sheehan (Season of the Witch) convincingly portray young talents who were in the right place at the right time but made the wrong moves, mostly due to Neil’s incredibly irresponsible handling of their careers. While it becomes increasingly clear that he’s the real problem, Bono (well-mimicked by Doyle) turns out to be a surprisingly likable character with an unexpected sense of humor.

Direction by Hamm (The Hole) is fairly by the book, though he and his cast seem to have fun plunging into some of the more embarrassing ‘80s attitudes and hairstyles. Alongside the leads, Serafinowicz offers up a juicy caricature of your typical coked-up music industry type, while the late, great Pete Postelthwaite (The Town) gives his final performance as a dandyish, wise-cracking landlord.

Venue: Taormina Film Festival
Production companies: Greenroom Entertainment, Wasted Talent, The Salt Company, Generator Entertainment
Cast: Ben Barnes, Robert Sheehan, Krysten Ritter, Peter Serafinowicz, Stanley Townsend, Martin McCann, Pete Postelthwaite
Director: Nick Hamm
Screenwriters: Dick Clement, Ian la Frenais, Simon Maxwell
Adapted from the autobiography by: Neil McCormick
Producers: Ian Flooks, Nick Hamm, Mark Huffam, Piers Tempest
Executive producers: Nigel Thomas, Charlotte Wall, Russell Allen, Simon Bosanquet, Mark Foligno, Jon Hamm, Tommy Moran
Director of photography: Kieran McGuigan
Production designer: Tom McCullagh
Music: Stephen Warbeck, Joe Echo
Costume designer: Lorna Marie Muggan
Editor: Billy Sneddon
Sales Agent: The Salt Company International
No rating, 113 minutes