Bono and me: The movie
Neil McCormick was a class-mate of the U2 singer. Now his comic memoir of growing up in Bono's shadow has been made into a film
Published 19/03/2011 | 05:00
In February last year, I found myself sitting in a ramshackle club outside Belfast, brooding over a Guinness while a band pranced about on a dingy stage beneath red and blue lights.
Smoke hung in the air, near-naked girls were shaking nipple tassels in my direction. But I was distracted by the handsome singer on stage -- posturing and hiccuping, reeking of youthful ego, ambition and pretension, while his deluded band murdered a half-decent song.
Which he had every right to trash within an inch of its life, because the naive, precocious, prancing idiot on stage was me, 30 years younger.
"So what did you think of that, darling?" said Nick Hamm, the director.
"You look like you've seen a ghost!"
What I had seen was an actor, Ben Barnes, playing me in Killing Bono, the film version of my rock 'n' roll memoir.
Most people who have films made about them have done something worthwhile, or at least of historical significance. Not me, though. All I did was fail, repeatedly, abjectly and quite unheroically.
Then they made a film about it. I have been immortalised in celluloid as a total loser.
As a young man, I was obsessed with fame. I was convinced it was my destiny to become a world-beating rock star. I had it all mapped out: the concept albums, the sci-fi world tours, first band on the moon.
Turned out my schoolmate, Paul Hewson, had the same idea. He started a band called Feedback, which briefly featured my younger brother, Ivan, on guitar. That didn't work out and I grabbed Ivan for my own punk band, Frankie Corpse & the Undertakers.
We played our first gig at the Mount Temple School disco in Dublin, in 1977, with Paul's band, who had changed their name to the Hype.
And so began my personal odyssey through the world of rock and roll, 13 years of missed chances, blown deals, bad judgment and worse luck.
By the end of the 1980s, I found myself playing a gig at the Coach & Horses in Wembley while our old school friends were down the road at Wembley Stadium.
Paul had adopted his teenage nickname of Bono. The band called themselves U2.
Mine is really a very ordinary rock story of big dreams and thwarted ambition. More bands fail than make it.
After all, the pyramid geometry of showbusiness requires greater numbers propping up the bottom than standing in glory at the peak.
The twist in my tale was that my friend became the biggest rock star on the planet. I became a rock critic.
It took me a while to come to terms with this, to take stock of my envy, put my ambition in perspective and draw some life lessons.
But eventually I wrote a book about our misadventures -- I Was Bono's Doppelganger.
The title was inspired by Bono's joking suggestion that we were cosmic opposites and I had soaked up his bad luck.
"If you want your life back, you'll have to kill me," he laughed. He thought I should call the book Killing Bono. "I know a lot of people who would wear that T-shirt."
He took to calling and leaving messages on my answer machine: "Neil, it's Bono. You have to kill me. It's for your own good. And mine." He was right; it's a better title, which was preferred by the US publishers.
Nick Hamm contacted me after my book came out in 2003 to say that he wanted to option the film rights. Now that was a call I had been secretly waiting for my whole life.
Still, I thought he was mad. It's such a sprawling, anecdotal story, spread over a lifetime, in which redemption, if it occurs, is almost all internal, a slow acceptance that you have to deal with life as it is, not as you might wish it to be.
Nick saw it as an everyman tale, because most people have more experience of failure than success. He had made a few films with varying degrees of success and, more significantly, failure. Something about my story spoke to him and he told me he was determined to get it made.
It took six years from that first meeting to the cameras rolling in Belfast (chosen because it looks more like Dublin in the 1970s than Dublin does now). The movie business can be so soul destroying, it makes rock-and-roll look easy.
You need so much money to make a film, so many people are involved and so many things can go wrong, that -- watching from the sidelines as the production rose and fell, scripts were written and revised, money was offered and retracted, shooting dates came and went -- I began to think it is a miracle any film ever gets made.
After a while, my initially rather delightful interactions with Nick became limited to annual phone calls to renew the rights, in which he tried to negotiate me down with pleas of impending poverty and nervous exhaustion.
"You have ruined my life, darling," he told me during one call. At least, in best theatrical tradition, he was still calling me darling.
Things began to heat up in 2009, with a new producer, Ian Flooks, on board, who used to be U2's booking agent.
We had a script by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, the comic maestros behind Porridge, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and The Commitments. But somewhere around the 10th rewrite, new issues emerged.
"The problem with your life, darling," Nick told me, "is that there's no third act."
"That is because it's a life, Nick," I pointed out.
"Don't worry though," he smirked. "We're going to give you one."
Film is a very different medium to the written word. Internal voices become dialogue, metaphor becomes action, and with each rewrite it became more detached from my life as I remembered it.
Characters were compressed. New characters invented. Incidents exaggerated. The story started to take on a logic of its own. By the 14th draft, they had me running around Dublin with a gun, hunting down my old friend.
I suggested we get Brendan Gleeson or Colm Meaney to play Bono, a good Irish character actor, preferably old, overweight and balding -- the ultimate revenge. In the event, they cast young Irish actor Marty McCann.
Marty had a way of jutting his chin and pumping up his chest, the walk of a boxer getting ready for the big fight, that spun me back 20 years. Then he would drop the whole thing and chatter away in a Northern Ireland accent.
People tell me it's funny and moving. I hope so. It did make me laugh, the performances are great (with a lovely turn from Pete Postlethwaite as our gay landlord, in what would be his last ever film) but I also had to put up with the stranger seated next to me suddenly guffawing, "What a jerk!" at one of my youthful indiscretions.
I had to restrain myself from tapping on his shoulder and saying "that's not how it really happened".
To me, the film is a kind of riff on the themes of my book, my life in a parallel universe, where I still don't get to be a rock star, but I do get the best lines.
My brother Ivan, on the other hand -- who is played by the possibly even more handsome Irish actor Robert Sheehan (from Misfits) and comes out of the whole thing rather better than me -- has been telling everyone the film is exactly the way it was. He was the real star in the family. And I ruined his life.
Well, maybe. But now I've made him a movie star, which must be some compensation.
As a deluded, fame-obsessed young man, of course, I never doubted that one day someone would make a film of my life. It just never occurred to me it would be a comedy.
Killing Bono is out April 1, the soundtrack on March 28. Neil McCormick's memoir will be republished by Penguin on March 31. He blogs regularly at blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture