Killing Bono

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Killing Bono

“‘Yeah, but you’ve got to kill Bono!’ chuckled Bono. This notion seemed to amuse him greatly. ‘That’s it! You’ve got to kill me,’ he laughed. ‘It’s for your own good! And mine!’”
—Neil McCormick, Killing Bono: A True Story

Growing up in 1970s Dublin, Neil McCormick wanted to be a rock star in every sense of the phrase. “Fame and Fortune were the twin peaks of my desire,” he wrote in Killing Bono, a memoir of self-deprecating humor and eloquence that chronicles his quest for global superstardom and all its accompanying amenities. There was, of course, the small matter of actually landing a recording contract. McCormick’s memoir captures the irreducible caprice and absurdity of the music business as it relates his relentless but repeatedly unsuccessful pursuit of that elusive first step. Neil, along with his brother Ivan, embarks on a failed odyssey involving changing bandmates, stage names, fashion choices, and musical styles ranging from punk to synth pop. The story of one’s quest for celebrity is not new, but McCormick’s tale is fascinating due to its insider’s perspective on the burgeoning musical subculture of modern Ireland, the British music scene in the 1980s, and the stratospheric rise of Paul Hewson and those pesky Mount Temple Comprehensive School classmates who formed bands known as Feedback and then the Hype before settling on the more enigmatic U2.

In the book, Hewson, better known today as Bono, serves as a bellwether for McCormick and, while remaining friendly and supportive of the latter’s efforts, becomes a source of personal torment for an aspiring rock star. Bono, as a person and persona, pops up at various stages of McCormick’s odyssey, playing a “strange, archetypal role in my subconscious, a rock God presiding over all that I desired.” Bono is the reverse doppelgänger of McCormick: hopelessly wealthy; a successful rock star in a stable, well-managed band that plays in front of vast, adoring crowds; married to his high-school sweetheart as opposed to cycling through relationships or one-night stands; alternating between hobnobbing with celebrities and saving the world; and in possession of a hard-won but enduring religious faith. This last part is an especially crucial distinction as McCormick’s tale becomes about much more than making it big. His quest for fame and fortune masks the deeper longings and existential doubts that plague him, all the while using Bono as a touchstone. The memoir finds McCormick surviving his disappointments and acknowledging his flaws while reorienting his perspective toward what life actually is rather than what he is waiting for it to become. As a result, the book’s title, which originates from a conversation with Bono himself, becomes a metaphor for overcoming.

Unfortunately, this important theme is utterly ignored in Nick Hamm’s new film adaptation of Killing Bono. Instead, the metaphor of the book’s title is given a crude literalness as an armed and desperate McCormick (Prince Caspian himself, Ben Barnes) literally contemplates ending the life of his frenemy. To suggest that “the book is better than the movie” may seem a tired complaint—and one that denies the legitimate artistic license of a filmmaker who adapts a written text for the big screen. But that doesn’t mean it’s never a valid criticism—and Killing Bono provides a case in point. Despite having a script written by The Commitments veterans Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, Killing Bono offers a condensed, revised and ultimately superficial version of the memoir. The end result leaves one wondering why the source material was good enough to inspire the idea for a movie but not trusted enough to be more faithfully adapted.

Hamm’s film streamlines the memoir by fast-tracking the process of seeking (and in the film, finding) a record contract, by erasing or changing many details of the story, and by adding apocryphal elements to the film that shape its narrative. Killing Bono emphasizes familiar subplots of band infighting and the gratuitous excesses of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll that litter their search for fame. Apocryphal elements include Neil cheating on his faithful and loving girlfriend Gloria by sleeping with a record company exec’s wife and his securing of funding from a Dublin mobster—a central plot point perhaps very loosely based on McCormick’s real life (though much later) and professional breakthrough interview with “the General” Martin Cahill. Killing Bono also adds a story about Neil’s role in denying Ivan a position in U2 at its genesis followed by Neil’s flawed yet contradictory attempts to atone for that original sin. Additional characters added to spice up the mix include the final performance of Pete Postelthwaite as a flamboyant gay landlord. The film culminates in the brothers’ desperate attempt to overcome farcical—and fictitious—circumstances to open for U2 in Dublin during their Joshua Tree heyday. Unfortunately, these changes do not improve upon or even remotely match the original source material. Whether one feels such fidelity is necessary or not, it is fair to say that the film, with its familiar tropes better developed elsewhere, doesn’t inspire on its own terms.

Adding an additional layer of irony to the title is the underdevelopment of the title character. Martin McCann’s solid but understated performance as the U2 front man doesn’t capture the charisma, comedy and complexity of the Bono portrayed in McCormick’s account—though this appears more a result of the screenplay than any limitations by McCann. The quotable sounding board, foil and sage of the memoir is replaced by a more straightforward and low-key figure who doesn’t engage McCormick in the existential conversations memorialized on the printed page. This missed opportunity encapsulates a broader critique of the film: while attempting to capture the humor and quest for fame evident in the book, it fails to trust the audience with the book’s more grownup themes. Killing Bono isn’t just about the humorous and tortured quest for fame in the shadow of U2’s rise to mega-stardom. It’s about the lessons of failure, the age-old questions of life, death and God, and the reevaluation of what a meaningful, significant life entails.

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