SIFF “Face The Music” preview: Killing Bono

Directed by Nick Hamm (Talk Of Angels and BBC’s Off The Hook), Killing Bono depicts the complicated relationship of two brothers in 1970s Ireland as they struggle as bandmates against the rising success of their rivals (and inspiration), who, as history proves, will become one of the largest selling bands in history.

Festival Screenings:

Thursday, July 2, at 6:30 PM at the Neptune
Sunday, July 5, at 1:30 PM at the Neptune
Wednesday, July 8, at 9:15 PM at the Admiral

I’ve never read Neil McCormick’s autobiography about he and his brother’s Irish band Shook Up! (originally Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!) attempting to survive in the long shadow of contemporaneous U2’s explosion of fame, I Was Bono’s Doppleganger. But the natural, playful energy of the actors playing the two brothers and the rest, led by Chronicles Of Narnia’s Ben Barnes as McCormick, makes Killing Bono enjoyable even when it careens into easy slapstick and fumbles with rocker (or thuggish or gay) stereotypes.

The movie is about horrible luck, with McCormick keeping his eager younger brother (played with elfin charisma by Robert Sheehan) from being able to jump ship and play guitar for the competing, luckier Dublin group. Martin McCann makes an excellent, quite-short-but-super-cocky Bono, and it’s actually really fascinating for anyone who was a fan of the band from Boy onward to see how his band’s fame both charges up the UK, and torments their friend-cum-rivals.

It seems like U2’s own fame plays relentless pranks on McCormick, but he doesn’t make it easy on himself, beginning a long running sponsorship from a back-home inimical investor, quitting a job at the legendary Irish rock tabloid Hot Press perhaps a bit too soon, eventually turning down slots opening for U2, and finally screwing the wrong mate of a business associate.

The entire film has a mocking understanding of what it takes to fail as much as it does to succeed, and never targets Bono as smug or thankless. (Despite its title, I don’t think the U2 frontman will have any problem with the movie at all.) Killing Bono almost seems to create comedy by its very existence, as I walked in to preview the movie, I ran into someone I know who is a huge U2 fan, who happened to be at the same public theater to see Thor. I seriously thought twice about telling him what I was there to see, because I knew it would bum him out. And it did. (I made some sort of excuse about people always having to take the piss out of famous people, and shambled off … but this guy really digs U2.) Then halfway through the movie I remembered I was used to personally pained, somewhat pouty looks like those from true-fans regarding the movie’s title. I remembered I used to have a black t-shirt back in the early 90s with a big gun on it, and the phrase “Kill Bono!” screaming in bright blue letters. Eventually, I retired it after I received all the pleasure I could from non-grunge big rock music fans who were horrified upon encountering it.

Killing Bono is likewise shocking too, not for all the sex, drugs, and rock and roll involved (though it’s all about that), but it’s another film in the SIFF 2011 series about those who play music for a living but never quite make a living. The Blue Oyster Cult Roadie who gets kicked off the road at the end of their tours and struggles to find a life post-music business; singer-songwriter Goh Nakamura in Surrogate Valentine, struggling along in the indie folk-rock scene from Los Angeles to Seattle; David Drury of Seattle band Tennis Pro playing blackjack for a living between albums in Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians; even the struggles to keep a music scene afloat in the Egyptian-based Microphone: The theme of “Face The Music” this year is one of struggle and personal satisfaction, and even coming to terms with failure as gracefully as possible.

The McCormick brothers try everything they can to succeed, and with Neil, that’s not always the best thing to do, considering his propensity for trouble. Yet there’s a retarded purity in his mission, that even when he’s screwing people over and sharing too much information in a song (his most notable one is a catchy ditty about rape), you sort of wish he would succeed. He can’t help himself, and even his jittery stage persona, referencing everyone from Midge Ure to Adam Ant to mid-80s arena Bono himself, creates more sympathy for his case than contempt for his ruses. “We’re snorting drugs at a gay party!” he squeals at one point, like a boy who just got a puppy for his birthday.

Highlights include the wish-fulfillment fantasy of moving to a large loft in London and scrambling together a band to work out fat-bottomed dance rock songs; meeting with endearingly skeevy record label executives who float from A&R positions to band management, with embittered associates in their wake and bands given the boot in revenge; sordid but charming patrons who know how to help charming young men with a craving to take over the world; and one angry skinhead just trying to get his boss’s payroll back. The music and fashion, mostly crafted by Barnes himself, is alarmingly true to the period — you haven’t heard or seen this band before, but you swear you did over 20 years ago on MTV.

Killing Bono may be overlong (there’s a lot of misadventures piled into its 114 minutes, and some cliched scenes could have been cut) but people leaving the screening seemed to be giggling both at and with some cursed lads from Ireland who knew only too well what it was what they were looking for, and how it’s always just out of reach.

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