Those who can’t, criticise; it’s a truism that cuts like cheese wire, not least because it’s often accurate. Spare a thought then, for the Telegraph’s rock critic, Neil McCormick. Like many young bucks his adolescence was frontloaded with pretentions to greatness. He was going to vomit genius onto a grateful crowd and, as we’re bathing in clichés, provide the soundtrack to your youth. His was the music you were going to shunt Jessica Walsh to, in the back of her boyfriend’s car; you’d pay £40 to see him and his band at your local venue, complete with beer coated floor and a bunch of fools hammering your shoulders with their springing bodies.
Yet these days McCormick writes about music, rather than making it and perhaps he’ll occasionally use that technique whereby a critic looks to focus on the one thing in whatever they’re writing about that acts as neat shorthand for the whole. We’re blessed with such a scene in Killing Bono, a reimagining of McCormick’s musical memoir, detailing his despair at school friend Bono’s rise to rock God.
McCormick arrives at the offices of his music magazine, where he’s a reluctant scribe, to announce his resignation, only to find the room full of teary colleagues. Initially, in line with the self-importance and comedy wastrel character created in an energetic and enjoyable turn from Ben Barnes, he assumes the tears are for him. In fact, news has broken that a crazed loner has murdered John Lennon in New York. “What kind of person would do this?” someone asks, only for the shell-shocked editor to reply, “Just some nobody who wanted fame and decided to get it the easy way by pulling a trigger.”
This foregrounds the final act of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais’ comedic spinoff from real life in which a downtrodden and luckless McCormick considers blowing away his childhood rival. His woes, which will resonate with anyone who’s watched their peers succeed, seemingly at their expense, touches up an uncomfortable truth, namely that many of us start together, for a time seem equal but only a select few are destined to catch the world’s attention and become celebrated.
It’s a nice hook, given added fascination by its links to biography. In reality however, Clement and La Frenais’ have merely literalised a joke between the music critic and his famous school chum; Bono having quipped, in reply to McCormick’s suggestion that that the two were leading parallel lives as cosmic opposites, that the failed musician might have to kill the rock star in order to reclaim his life.
It’s hard to believe that anyone could mistake Nick Hamm’s comedy for fact, however. It’s awash with broad humour, comedic contrivances and sitcom setups; a performance in a seedy bar, applauded by a handful of topless dancers, McCormick scheduling his band’s gig on the day of a papal visit, and so on; played with an earnestness that signposts its artifice at every opportunity.
As no one, except maybe the marketing men, are pretending this has any relationship with reality, bar names and dates, it’s a diverting comedy of errors, with judicious drops of farce spooned in for good measure. Barnes as Neil McCormick flits between puffed up wannabe and calamitous cock up merchant, capturing all the swagger of a jobbing frontman, as well as the all the bullshit. Robert Sheenan, playing his younger brother Ivan, who was prevented from joining a fledgling U2 by an act of selfish interventionism by his brother, is a likable foil for Barnes’ deluded singer. However, there’s a note of regret that Pete Postlethwaite’s final role as the boy’s landlord is a throw away turn as a homosexual stereotype. It’s a tribute to the late actor’s considerable talents that such a threadbare part is nevertheless imbued with warmth and a sense of fun.
Given Clement and La Frenais’ comic pedigree it would have been astonishing if the pair hadn’t managed to crow bar a few sharp one liners into their screenplay. Early on there’s a gentle lampooning of the self-importance with which U2 are occasionally associated with, when in response to David Howell Evans chosen moniker, McCormick quips “The edge of what?” However it’s Peter Serafinowicz’s vain and enjoyably straight faced music label impresario that gets the best lines, not least when he tells a jeering crowd, “you can’t boo me, I went to Eton!”
The film suffers from being too long, ironically because of the entirely fictionalised final act that hoists the filmmakers by their own petard; their need to add an overblown and implausible denouncement to give the film some cinematic girth, only serving to undercut the more intimate story that has come before. One wonders why the original memoir wasn’t enough; a more low key conclusion might have served these characters better, but having built the script around the conceit that McCormick might act on his jealously and introduce us to a beautiful counterfactual world in which Pop never made it to shops, they were obliged to let it play out.
As Paul McCartney once said, reacting to the news of a famous singer and old friend who was murdered, “it’s a drag, isn’t it?”
Killing Bono is released in the U.K. tomorrow.