"[T]he lyrics aren't literature; they are only part of the story."
The Reel Thing: U2's History On Film
May 06, 2017
U2’s rise to superstardom conveniently came at a time when new media wasn’t quite a big idea, but was well on its way. By 2017’s standards, the 1980s seem primitive. We have access to snapshot moments of the band’s early years, but not enough to get a palpable sense of what it was like on a daily basis for them. Lucky for us, there are some wonderfully made films that provide insight into to the environment the band grew up in, what it feels like to start a band, and what it’s like when that band begins to take off. While there’s little doubt that we’ll eventually see a proper U2 biopic, this article will look at three films that intentionally and unintentionally tell crucial parts of U2’s early story.
Bloody Sunday (2002) may seem like an obvious place to start, but this choice has as much to do with the even-handedness of the approach as it does with the actual subject. Writer-director Paul Greengrass examines both sides of the deadly conflict that took place in Derry on Jan. 30, 1972, in which peaceful protesters clashed with British soldiers who were trained to kill. As the film progresses, Greengrass discovers an unexpected humanity the closer he looks. Innocence and guilt exist somewhere within both parties (obviously, one side is more guilty than the other).
His film feels like a documentary, which makes the experience more powerful, complex and gut-wrenching. Using few of the usual tools of manipulation that many filmmakers would employ for this subject, Greengrass’ film achieves something rare in forcing viewers to look beneath the surface and realize there are no easy answers.U2 were barely teenagers when these events occurred, and they lived about three hours away in Dublin. It is not just because they would later write songs like “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Please” and “Raised By Wolves” that make this film a part of their story. Certainly these types of events that took place regularly in their country helped shape their music, politics and idealism. But the film reverberates with the idea of “With many lost, but tell me, who has won?” and essentially makes the argument that, in this case, the IRA won by having so many new recruits after the events of Bloody Sunday took place. As a lyricist, Bono has always been good at uncovering complexities within these issues. “We just started again,” he sings at the climax of “Please,” after going through the cycle of violence, blame and more violence.
One could argue that Jim Sheridan’s In The Name Of The Father is an equally good place to start with the story of U2. The Troubles are covered there as well, but within that conflict lies a more personal story of a father and son forced to share the same jail cell for years (in Kilmainham Gaol, where the video for “A Celebration” was filmed). It’s easy to speculate that Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his father (Pete Postlethwaite) had the same kind of tumultuous relationship that Bono had with his father. Both of these films examine The Troubles from multiple generations and viewpoints, but they all share the same mission of exposing and exploring the injustices done to the people of Ireland -- and by extension the world -- that would fuel U2’s music for decades.
Sing Street (2016) tells the story of Conor, a teenage boy growing up in Dublin in 1985 who forms a band to impress a mysterious, dark-haired girl. Sound familiar? Bono and The Edge were attached to write some of the film’s original songs, and while that never came to fruition, Sing Street is infused with moments that echo the stories U2 has told over the years, while still telling its own. In direct opposition to Bloody Sunday, this film captures the emotions of U2’s teenage years in which they figured out where to put their accumulated anger. Bono himself hit the nail on the head when he said: “In truth, most films won’t touch Sing Street’s portrayal of awakening.”
On its own, this film is a relatively simple musical with catchy songs, memorable characters and a feel-good tone. But in the context of both 1985’s Dublin and especially U2’s history, it evolves into something deeper and more personal. Songs Of Innocence and the I+E tour in 2014 were all about visually contextualizing the band’s origins. The music and the staging did their best to put the fans in a particular time and place, but from the perspective of men looking back. Whereas Sing Street is full of people trying to look forward. In this film, we see a boy fall in love with a girl; we see the stormy relationships; and, as Bono said, we see the musical awakening. Think of it this way: If Bloody Sunday is “Raised By Wolves,” Sing Street is “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone).”
John Carney, the writer and director of Sing Street, excels at drawing the audience into this time and all that it has to offer -- or in many cases, not offer. Even with the uplifting moments, Dublin is still shown as a city of missed opportunity. Conor’s older brother Brendan is a brash, unapologetic music geek who comes to the sobering realization that he may have missed his shot. He’s the type of person who has a lot to say, but no one to say it to. Because of that, he pushes his brother not to just form a band, but to create a sound. The apex of this story is the final scene, a much more literal approach to Bono’s “going to London to score a record deal” story, in which Conor and his dream girl Raphina sail to London with a handful of demos and a head full of dreams.
While Bloody Sunday examines historical events that influenced the band and where they came from, and Sing Street provides a charming yet fictional reimagining of their genesis, Killing Bono is the one film on this list that directly tackles U2’s rise from teenage aspiration to world rock domination, albeit peripherally. It’s based on the real-life memoir I Was Bono’s Doppelganger by Neil McCormick, childhood chum and longtime friend of Bono and the boys. While flawed from over six years of “development hell” and a lack of clear vision with the story, Killing Bono is a fun watch for any U2 film aficionado, both for the picture it paints of how tough it was for budding Irish musicians to make it in the music business, and for the fun of the constant U2 references and first real big-screen portrayal of the band, especially of Bono, who gets the most screen time.
The main story mechanism for Killing Bono has Neil (Ben Barnes) constantly failing in his attempts to make it big as a rock star, where his high school friend, Paul Hewson-cum-Bono (Martin McCann) always seems to succeed. At each successive era of early-U2 we see their album releases and key successes as a backdrop to McCormick and his brother Ivan’s series of flubs. Their aspirations for glamorous rock stardom are constantly rebuffed by the universe. Still, the key message from McCormick’s story does come through, even if not in pointed clarity: You can find peace if you accept what life throws at you and make the most of it.
Throughout the movie Neil’s sometime side-gig as a journalist for Hot Press was always a way to make money while waiting for his band to hit it big. It’s only when he realizes that writing is what he’s really good at, and accepts that it’s what’s right for him, that he finds peace. It’s a nice counterpoint to the story of Sing Street. The two films tell a similar story, each with a different outcome but a unified message: Be true to yourself. That same message is at the heart of why so many of us feel drawn to U2 and their music.
The title of the film comes from an alternate name for McCormick’s book in some countries. As the screenplay went through years of rewrites (at least 14 drafts according to McCormick), the details of characters and storylines morphed from their original iteration to being only loosely based on fact. Director Nick Hamm and several credited screenwriters exemplify the phrase “too many cooks in the kitchen” and create a third act that takes the title too literally.
Neil’s character harbors an increasing level of jealousy, to the point that he’s ready to “take up arms against his oppressor,” namely Bono. Not only is this choice of finale untrue as a literal interpretation, and disjointed with the tone of the rest of the film, but it also forces the filmmakers to develop the protagonist into a jealous and unpleasant character by degrees throughout the film, which greatly detracts from its enjoyment. Still, McCann’s portrayal of Bono during the first 10 years of U2’s history, with that swagger and cheeky grin, is a guilty pleasure. It has other virtues, including a live version of U2’s early song “Street Mission,” plenty of U2 references, and -- in common with In The Name Of The Father -- a nice supporting performance from Pete Postlethwaite in what turned out to be his final film performance.
© @U2/Gifford, Mason, Souter 2017