By coincidence, I viewed the films Len & Company and This Must Be the Place back to back.
It turned out that they were apt for comparison points about ideas of a newer problem in history: How do aging Rock and Rollers, a generation defined by its own mantra to “die before I get old”, do so without embarrassment, survive it, as it were, and negotiate something they’ve only arrived at through the greatest of chance or luck, the retirement years?
These films are both about other questions as well, framed upon their protagonist’ outlines, but most of these rotate around and spin off of the central question and its micro problems and pain points about love and marriage, children and legacy, the mantle of fame, success and wealth (and its limitations) boredom, and ideas about selling out or losing control of something that was once personal. And for the famous, there’s also the threat all of these events represent on the person who was once Len or Cheyenne, now in the years when one so central to things begins to feel redundant.
Watching these films in succession highlights their core themes and clearly marks their successes and failures as narratives. Len and Company wins in the exact same places that This Must Be the Place falls apart. It soars and becomes a small marvel of a slice of (strange) life, held aloft largely by the award worthy work of Ryhs Ifans as Len, a one time musician and ridiculously wealthy producer who’s facing his failures as husband, father and mentor, as he exists mostly alone with his old man preoccupations and practically friendless, his bravado and his cool affect as armour, before an indifferent roving audience who sees through it and knows him more than he knows himself.
One of the strengths of Len & Company is its rootedness. Centered mainly in and around Len’s home, with those who are bound to him moving in and out of his eye-line, distractions are minimal and subtle performances are allowed to shine. The house feels real, the pull feels real, the longing to belong feels real, the confusion is real. Len’s home was once a family home, it’s a cobwebby studio, it’s got an enviable brag wall upstairs. It’s got a pool given over to moss and an air of neglect that is authentic, that of the elder letting go, rather than the carefully constructed devil-may-care aspect of a rocker used to endless room service and a rotating door of women becoming caregivers for a while. The last woman has left him. It’s a movie you don’t want to end, as Ifans creates one of the most memorable figures in many years, in a role he was born to play. He is interesting enough, with enough of that true rock star magic, that you root for him and care about his heart even as the film explores his heart’s very existence.
Len is a believable creation of a rock star, used to being trotted out (to career day at a school, no less) able to shock, astound, impress, alienate and entertain in a knee jerk way, tired of his own stories “blah blah blah…” even as you know the real stories would frighten and amaze you, that the regular people must never know, could not ever understand. His origin story and his bio in his own worlds buries mountains while revealing gems about him and about too-real, endlessly fascinating peers in music: a difficult, fractured childhood, the limited options that drove thousands of young men to pick up instruments and become creative, that time of possibility and risk when music (supported by an industry and record deals, a living, even) exploded across England, and all that came after. The aftermath. And what life and music is today. Len and Company, based upon a play “Len Asleep in Vinyl” by Carly Mensch, is funny as hell and poignant in a way that we expected in the richness of 1970s cinema but is a rare treat today.
Conversely, This Must Be The Place is a story firmly ensconced in the world of quirk, of disjuncture as plot, of plots that require diners and other tropes of an American road story to shuffle in a well-cast array of Lynchian / Coen world figures in bit parts. This Must Be the Place is a pastiche of several different promising stories duct taped together into a mostly incoherent slideshow of weirdness one strains to tie together. This is the movie a few years back where Sean Penn was roundly ridiculed in snarky blogs, papped for his insane looking costume which seemed to be a hard looking transgendered figure somewhere between aging clown and wicked witch. The Oscar winning and at times inspired actor has often transmitted a dangerous sexiness, believable as an alpha male off screen and on, a type of man who could never pass as a female. The casting and the movie looked just terrible.
But director Paolo Sorrentino made clear what keen music fans feared and suspected about this costume. The character’s look in This Must Be the Place is a rough (very rough) visual parody of the late 20th Century’s greatest musical pop artist (who is not Bowie or Prince, and who is still living): Robert Smith. The director reportedly had seen Smith backstage at a Cure show and was intrigued by his commitment to his look, extrapolating from the glance the same uninspired (media created) cartoon character Smith has had to live with for over 30 years, pulling from old archival interviews and flat photographs something that doesn’t translate without musical interest, appreciation and understanding but would yet be possible to know through a short scan of published interviews. Smith’s interviews reveal a man of wit, intelligence, strength and vast creativity, not to mention integrity. Robert Smith is an artist through and through. Like so many outright characters in the world of fashion, (who are not ridiculed) he has stayed with one look, one uniform, for all of his public life. This is a marker of the artist who has focused on his art, no more and no less.
But Sorrentino saw a hairstyle, a smear of makeup, imagining, and creating, a fool, a big screen clown. The caricature is cruel and pathetic, embodied by Penn in an utter failure to be believable. In an age where actors put their bodies into critical risk to play believable roles (something excessive more than impressive) Penn’s Cheyenne is anemic, ill-at-ease and always seems to be in bad drag. He never seems to inhabit the look of the character as if it was a choice of decades, when surely to god, one would get used to hair hanging in the face? His tics are insufferable. Penn’s Cheyenne speaks in a silly Michael Jackson falsetto (which was fake in Jackson’s case, too) most of the time, drifts through his retirement in Dublin towing an ever-present shopping buggy (later a suitcase on wheels) in a sledgehammer of symbolism, and his best friend is an obsessed teenage fan, capably played by Bono’s daughter, Eve Hewson. She’s named Mary, and styled after Robert Smith’s real life wife of the same name. Oddly, Cheyenne has a bizarrely cast Frances McDormand as his emasculating cartoon of a wife, who disappears early on in the film. Because why would you bring your wife to your father’s deathbed/funeral?
The film has nothing to do with Robert Smith or The Cure, except as a few jabs in yet another ridiculous and maddening media production in the decades of same that disrespects a great artist in a shallow way. But where the film does tread into the Smith mystique, it fails to add much to its own artistic endeavor and manages to offend. Cheyenne is afraid of planes as Smith was once stated to be and so takes a boat to America from the U.K. to see his long-estranged dying father. He arrives, of course, too late (a tragedy played for black humour). Blowing his wig out of his eyes irritatingly throughout the film, as a petulant teenager (disrupting any belief in the character each time), Cheyenne, through a convoluted storyline is an American who now attempts to honour his father’s life and assuage his own guilt and the pain of estrangement by attempting to become a rogue Nazi hunter.
And hi-jinx ensue.
Pinned onto the messy teenage bulletin board that is this mess of a movie, the title borrows from the Talking Heads song, which features through the film, and includes an appearance by David Byrne as “himself” who, in the world of the film was a contemporary of Cheyenne’s who seems cast to represent the authentic artist, growing (up and on) and moving in a world that he’s earned respect in, while Cheyenne is a middle aged child, in arrested development, barely excused by his family baggage and even the shadow of the Holocaust his father survived, as even with all that furiously churned up backstory, Sorrentino and Penn create an almost totally unsympathetic character by their failure to let him live and breathe.
Ok, so is this fiction or is this some sort of comment on reality? And if it’s the latter, in what reality is Talking Heads and their relatively brief musical catalog decidedly “art” with staying power and the figure of Robert Smith and The Cure something lesser than? In no reality. In the really tired attitudes of our parents and grandparents where a man in makeup is full-stop-a freak. Something frightening and shameful. Talking Heads came out of the same post-punk eruption as The Cure at the same time- the late 70s- and used the veneer of the politely dressed normal college kid as a costume – a much less obvious one, a much less bold one than that of The Cure- to explore some of the same dark themes and big questions of life. For those with an attention span longer than an old MTV video clip, The Cure continued to do this long after Talking Heads broke up in 1991. At around the same time as Talking Heads parted ways, and with the same amount of albums (8), The Cure released their mid-career masterpiece Disintegration, a record widely touted by fans & serious critics as the greatest album of the entire era, across a splintering of healthy, interesting genres of music. It is a work of art, a laying bare of the crisis of turning 30, past the age most musical masterpieces were ever created, if they ever would, at a point of stadium-level fame the band abhored, quite honestly, laden with drugs to cope with depression and not yet settled into the notion of marriage. It is transcendence through pain, healing the world along the way, a gift. The only thing like it of its time, and a delineation point after which the global music industry began to smother itself, making future bands with the lifespan of The Cure and Talking Heads an impossibility.
But here is where the head really starts to spin. In this fiction, David Byrne plays himself, allowing rights for his own music to be played (including live performance) and promoting his own catalog. The musician and celebrity has no issue with a fiction that even at a glance, attempts to belittle and question the merit and authenticity of another much more successful artist who’s won a hopelessly rigged game on his own terms. No Cure song has ever been sold to sell cars or fast food. Is that not a pure artist? Can a pure artist come from a blip called Crawley in the U.K.? Or must he come from wherever as long as he was one of a handful that rooted themselves in Manhattan at the last point in time anyone could afford to do so who was not well funded/rich, as many dubious musical artists now relocate themselves to Brooklyn, just to erase where they’re from and say they’re from Brooklyn? In this fiction, Cheyenne and Byrne come face to face in a set piece that makes no sense in the context of the rest of the film but seems shoehorned in to explain the use of the title/theme song, suggesting the lead actor should have instead gone about costumed in an oversized suit, brush cut and fake glasses, maybe.
Sorrentino is one of the most talked about directors of today. It seems his name recognition in the United States was aided greatly by his collaboration with Sean Penn on this picture. The picture’s tropes, conceits and gimmicks seem quite calculated and so are worthy of a hard look and a critical eye.
Is there something in the Italian sensibility that makes English music something to be dismissed? Does Sorrentino have a much bigger fear of missing out about the endlessly snapshotted sexy late 1970s and early 1980s of New York’s Lower East Side art and music scene than he does of the much closer at hand 70s and 80s British music explosion that gave us The Cure, among a few other notable artists? The Cure is among a very short list who still exist today, performing to an exceptional standard of excellence, never selling out, and remaining trustworthy. No drug deaths or early flameouts hold them in amber to fit our narrative of youthful, tragic beauty, rather, they challenge listeners to the very limits of loyalty and love, which is supposed to be for always and ever and worthy, if we trust ourselves and do not follow fickle trends or fashion. But the myth of New York in its former gritty glory is covered in museum dust now, and so few of us made it there in time, hmm? The place itself hopelessly priced out of affordability for all the colourful groups that used to make it what it was for a century. CBGBs is long gone. Did you get your t-shirt?
Sorrentino wanted to create an American road picture, something combining absurdism with the quirk patented by deeply American artists such as Lynch, the Coen Brothers, and even musicians like David Byrne, but his transporting of the bewigged early 80s pop star from England by way of Dublin (?) to America is an absurdity too far to make any of the film’s arguments or explorations really effective. The script has some wonderful moments, often brought to life by the ever changing supporting characters as Penn plays off them, but his character is too overdrawn and too smothered inside his costume to make for a believable arc. We want to like him in spite of his deliberate unattractiveness, for he’s the star, he appears fragile at times, and, it must be said, because of the man the film has badly caricatured. Imagine the reaction if someone had done a film like this about a Bowie or a Prince.
There are moments in This Must Be the Place, there is potential. When Penn allows himself to take his own character seriously instead of as a painful cartoon, there are flashes of something good. His take no-prisoners way of dominating at ping pong add more depth to the character than much of what he does for the hour before. But faith in the filmmaker is so strained by this point that one wonders if we are stretching to imagine that Cheyenne’s innate way of interacting with strangers along the American roadways is an illustration of one of the great skills of a rock star, who must be at least a part-time diplomat to succeed, or if it’s a conceit of the script that the awkward, stilted and bored retired rocker becomes a natural detective and social engineer along the way to redemption & too neat closure. How can looking like everyone else in KHAKIS be anything less than a failure in a story of an artist? Ah but this is a story of a clown in recovery, to be watched through a disturbed frown and a true dis-ease.
This Must Be the Place would have been improved without its silly decoration. Cheyenne might have been instead an original creation, like Len. Ryhs Ifans as Len wears a Ryhs Ifans hairstyle, a hairstyle not understood outside of the U.K. but one that is an important one, marking one’s allegiances and commitment to style as clearly as any other part of a uniform. Liam Gallagher still displays a version of this look. Paul Weller carries it on into his grey years. Clint Boon wears it well, still Cool as Fuck. And many music fans attempt it today with varying levels of success but much chutzpah and good for them.
But This Must Be the Place made a fatal error. While innumerable rockers wore the big, black, messy hair do for a good decade or more across punk, post-punk and into hair metal and goth, and many young ambitious, beautiful fans of both genders followed suit (something they presumably hold no regrets about as some men are now be in the dark years of male baldness and women have entered the most boring hair era of the past 100 years) there is only one iconic star who’s kept the look going into the new century, despite what anyone thinks, and that’s Robert Smith. He doesn’t try to look like the static images of the early 80s version of himself that we flew on flags across our bedrooms in black and white. He doesn’t have to conform to Hollywood’s poisonous lie that says knives and starvation and injecting botulism in your face and more and more smoke machines (like others we won’t name) are needed to keep an unreal image of the early 80s up on stage. He is, and looks like, a man over 50 who wears his hair in a messy style of a secret formula that is greying, who has always liked a bit of eyeliner and a smear of lipstick. So what? Furthermore, he’s endlessly beautiful and no less masculine or attractive to women because he did these things as if they were normal and clearly are normal for him and the millions who love him as the artist he is.
Len and Company deals with aging, relevancy and legacy in meaningful ways. Juno Temple plays Len’s biggest star he’s launched recently, a teen pop idol, a damaged shell, easily recognized in the sad eyes of the girls of pop today. She is Len’s success story and his shame, for which he goes into hiding and full on crisis mode. He has to grapple with not only his creation (her music) but his creation (her as a person, messy and in need) and he has to face what he’s become as a PRODUCER. What a word that is if you consider it fully.
This Must Be the Place dodges all of that meaty context by leaving it behind on shore. Cheyenne’s legacy is ruined and stale, he lives a groundhog day existence of visiting a grave of two fans who took his angst filled songs too far and committed suicide, and he gives his fan/friend bootlegs of his own work from back in the day. He’s a cardboard cutout, a dark but shallow fantasy of what a casual glance of a curious figure in an “80s” hair style in 2011 might conjure in a bored and not-yet-middle aged mind. It falls apart in the first frame because the real artist aped here is endlessly interesting and full of depths that time has not dimmed in the least.
In the muck and mire of family love and self-reckoning, Len and Company does something miraculous that many music films and botched quirk like This Must Be the Place fail to do: it sings. It reminds us of the greatness, the spirit and the energy of The Clash, something that trancended borders, timezones, age gaps and even agendas. Rhys Ifans sings, movingly, hitting home what we suspected, he’s a real rock star, and so, ageless.
When even The Jesus and Mary Chain (who also wore it beautifully) cut their hair, when all the hair metal bands and goth rockers famous or locally idolized cut their hair, some sort of darkness covered the world of cool that had ruled in the 1980s in trenchcoats and black clothes of no special brand or cost or dictates, and creepers and police boots and random other vintage clothes of no special significance but that they were cheap and vintage and so cool, of anti-fashion that was true style. As Robert Smith stayed with a look (occasionally cutting his hair over the years) he also cemented himself as an artist. As an artist who was not going to follow the trend of pop stars to reinvent annually, that has grown ever more foolish in the 2000s. An artist who would never just look like another corporate bore in evil preppy tones, that is one of the few things he could do that would shock the world.
Like David Lynch, who is iconic in a plain well cut suit and a gorgeously messy pile of hair, a self stlyed 90s half-pompadour that is more James Dean than anything else, Robert Smith is iconic, an artist. Not ever a joke or a clown. What the foolish detractors over the decades miss is that he wore that look better than anyone (male or female) and millions have loved him for it (and much more) forever more. All who would attack it reveal themselves to be envious, uncool people (usually male). Haters. Haters with press passes and bylines. Haters with important friends with mysterious axes to grind. Haters with film budgets and even top awards.
And in response to the haters, one important way that uniforms (including hair statements) work is they put things up front to easily separate the enemy from the ally, long before you have to stand eye to eye.
Len and Company: Directed by Tim Godsall, 2015, Starring Ryhs Ifans, Juno Temple, Jack Kilmore, Keir Gilchrist, Kathryn Hahn. (On Netflix)
This Must Be the Place: Directed by Paolo Sorrentino, 2011, Starring Sean Penn, Eve Hewson, Judd Hirsch.