First up, here’s a musical fact. This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) by The Talking Heads is the best song ever written. Maybe it’s the synth bassline and brittle guitar part, circling around each other in an endless loop. Or maybe it’s David Byrne’s yelping, meandering vocals, bleating non-sequitur-laden platitudes. Whatever it is, whether you’re listening to the lazy groove of the studio version, from their 1983 breakthrough album Speaking In Tongues, or gawping at Byrne dancing with a lamp in the concert movie Stop Making Sense, there’s something utterly beguiling about that tune.
For his first English-language film, Il Divo director Paolo Sorrentino has not only pilfered the song’s title (sans the parentheses), but also brought in Byrne to provide both the soundtrack and a quirky cameo. However, the Talking Heads connection stops there, as the film’s plot focuses on Cheyenne (Sean Penn), a middle-aged rock star who is living out his reclusive later years in an Irish mansion.
With his ever-present make-up, scarecrow-thatch hairstyle and propensity for the colour black, Cheyenne is clearly modelled on Robert Smith, lead singer of goth titans The Cure, but Penn’s mewling, murmuring falsetto, not to mention the barrel-load of pampered pop star cliches, suggests more of a Michael Jackson-inspired character. Laconic, distant and frazzled by fame, Cheyenne trundles through his retirement pulling an old-lady shopping trolley, dragging the baggage of his former life around with him at all times. ‘You married a child,’ he moans to his dependable, completely well-adjusted wife (Frances McDormand), who is so responsible that she also works as a firefighter.
However, after slowly building up a number of character-portrait plot points – there’s a young goth in need of guidance, and a bereaved mother whose son took Cheyenne’s lyrics too seriously – the director performs a narrative about-face, sending the protagonist Stateside, to his father’s deathbed. There, he learns of his father’s life-long quest to confront a former SS officer, who persecuted him at Auschwitz.
And so, stylistic gears audibly grinding, the film kicks into its second phase, where Cheyenne road-trips across America, searching for his prey, and discovering a little about himself and his former home country along the way. It is as thematically messy and intermittently corny (at one point Cheyenne sings a duet with a kid) as it is aesthetically beautiful. Sorrentino’s graceful camera movements and delicate framing may please the eye, but they’re poor compensation for the film’s lack of the wit, charm and insight found in David Lynch’s The Straight Story, or the work of the Coen Brothers.
Penn’s oppressively kooky, meticulously idiosyncratic performance reminds you that, even though they appear in radically different films, he is very much a contemporary of Johnny Depp. Both actors revel in pushing their characters to the limit – often, when let off the directorial hook, they’re pushed beyond the audience’s grasp. Unluckily for Penn, though, Cheyenne does not live in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland or Roald Dahl’s Chocolate Factory; he lives in what supposedly is the real world. And he is such a caricature of a lead, that the character’s journey and development are never truly convincing.
As always, Frances McDormand is a treat, bringing to her role all of the gusto and pluck that was evident in Fargo, but she is left behind far too early. Similarly, a fleeting, and funny, appearance from Judd Hirsch as a wizened, grouchy Nazi hunter is given little time to develop. Instead, we’re stuck with Penn for the duration.
We’re also stuck with a very unfortunate score, which mostly consists of re-arrangements of the aforementioned Talking Heads tune. As we’ve already confirmed, this is a candidate for Desert Island Disc status, but ceaseless repetition of even a good melody is dangerous – and potentially fatal. Fortunately, at around the mid-point mark, Byrne himself turns up, performing a rather brilliant live rendition of the track, with a stage set that rises, rotates and glides over the heads of the band.
For all its directionless ambition, This Must Be The Place can’t escape the shadow of its progenitor. And by giving over a significant chunk of the film’s itinerant structure to the song itself, Sorrentino cements its fate. If it’s a choice between a baggy, indulgent, confused film, and five of the most magical musical minutes in pop history, then there isn’t much of a contest. If someone asks, I know where I’ll be.