Coming at the height of the Occupy Wall Street protests, Killing Bono is concerned with another voiceless 99 percent, the anonymous millions who strive for musical stardom but never really come close, doomed to small gigs and minimal recognition. This underbelly of the rock n’ roll fantasy is familiar cinematic territory, and though the film retains some commitment to realism by never giving its characters an easy way out, the reliance on endless failure as correctives only makes the clichés seem more dreary and repetitive. Rather than attempt to search for real drama in this seedy, depressing world, Killing Bono builds itself around the mythos of U2, the members of which lurk around the film’s periphery like mythological gods.
Brothers Neil and Ivan McCormick start out as the schoolmates of hopeful teen musicians Paul Hewson and David Evans, who soon rechristen themselves Bono and the Edge, start recording their own material, and leave provincial Dublin far behind. This leaves older brother Neil, a stubborn frontman with an outsized conception of his own greatness, stuck perpetually in their wake. He refuses the band’s offers of help, obsessed with making it on his own, while hiding from Ivan that he sabotaged the group’s attempts to recruit him, desperate to hang onto his brother’s talents for his own use.
Played out in sleazy clubs and unheated apartments, the film has the potential to become an interesting rejoinder to the usual tales of rock stardom, with the McCormicks’ band existing as a kind of sad shadow of their more famous counterparts, meeting with one dispiriting failure after another. But instead of completely focusing on the two brothers, it overplays the U2 connection, positioning the band not only at the beginning of the story, but also squarely at its end. The film opens with an overwrought, artfully shot sequence set in 1987, as Neil careens through the streets in a stolen car, seemingly intent on murdering his former friend. This gives the rest of the film, which plays out in flashback, an air of pointless inevitability, imposing an awkward structure that drains it of any residual suspense. It also ensures that there will be no real drama to the band’s attempts to make it, with film subsisting on new and more boneheaded ways for Neil to screw up the pair’s chances.
Dour and self-serious under an air of jokey affability, Killing Bono never really gets going, mostly because it has no real idea of how to convey joy, pain, or any type of emotional progression. Rather than organically develop its characters, it charts their evolution via silly outfit changes, treating the early ‘80s as a costume bin for flavor-of-the-week aping gags, with the band going from Gary Numan style shirts and skinny ties to lavish glam-rock costumes. None of this is very funny, and the film’s broad streak finds its nadir with characters like the lispy gay landlord played by the late, great Pete Postlethwaite, whose last role unfortunately finds him pickled in campy excess.
For a story about finding your own path, Killing Bono inevitably has little to offer beyond its U2 connection, relying on the group, which supervised and approved the film, for significance and context. Their involvement doesn’t make the film markedly worse beyond providing a seeming license to slack off in most aspects. But it doesn’t make it better either, resulting in a hokily unsatisfying drama stocked with sitcom-level humor.