When I first saw the poster for This Must Be the Place, I was convinced that Sean Penn was playing the role of a woman. I was wrong. Instead, Penn is Cheyenne, a wealthy, bored and maybe depressed retired glam rock star.
That first moment you see Penn in his full get up – Gothic clothing, big hair, powdered face, earings and ruby red lipstick – is a thing to behold and, well, just plain weird and kind of uncomfortable. And then you hear the 50-year-old’s timid voice come out of Penn’s mouth. Things do not get more normal.
Cheyenne, summoned back to America for the impending death of his father, is bored. His relationship with his father didn’t exist. He said his father never loved him. So why on earth does a retired glam rock star set on an American journey to find his Jewish father’s executioner, an ex-Nazi war criminal who is hiding somewhere out there, when he doesn’t consider his father to really be worth avenging for? Well he’s bored.
So he leaves his loving wife Jane (played by Frances McDormand – I know, it’s weird) of 30 years and leaves his UK home for America. He gets meets a stranger at a hibachi restaurant, gets himself a car and heads off to play detective. It’s all very bizarre.
Let us divert for a minute and talk about the film’s roots. This Must Be the Place directly references the Talking Heads song of the same name. In fact, the film, which is directed by Italian Paolo Sorrentino features Talking Heads’ frontman David Byrne, who playing himself shows up for an awesome performance segment of the song with his solo backing group. It’s brilliantly filmed.
Byrne and Cheyenne are old friends through the business and see each other for a moment inside Byrne’s musical building. There they have one of the film’s most jarring conversations, mostly dominated by Cheyenne. It’s really the first time the character’s emotions explode and more detailed about his career is explained. Cheyenne doesn’t feel like an artist like Byrne is considered to be. Cheyenne feels guilty about the suicides of two boys – brothers at that – because of the depressed songs he willingly penned for depressed youth. His stone-faced depression-like personality gains some meaning.
But the song means a lot more to this film than this key interaction between Byrne and Cheyenne. The music appears throughout the film in a number of different styles and forms. Different covers, different renditions, different arrangements. Perhaps the most meaningful one comes in a tender interaction between Cheyenne and the son of a woman Cheyenne purposely meets to gain more information about his father’s executioner. Cheyenne picks up a guitar for what seems to be the first time in a long time, and after humorously arguing with the boy that Talking Heads wrote the song and not Arcade Fire, who covered it, busted out a sweet rendition with the chubby young fella singing Byrne’s legendary lyrics. It’s the film’s most tender moment.
I realize I am all over the place with this right now, but that sort of embodies the spirit of This Must Be the Place. It’s a weird film and it takes you on a journey, both literally and emotionally. What I thought was really interesting was that once the film turns into a road movie – which it truly is at heart – this Italian filmmaker nails Americana as Cheyenne travels through states like New Mexico, Utah and Michigan and makes stops at dingy motels, tourist traps and roadside dive bars. It captures the essence of a road trip through America.
Back on track, This Must Be the Place is also an awkward coming of age way too late in life film. Cheyenne had a weird life for his first 50 years. This isn’t really a midlife crisis, but realizations are hitting way too hard. Rock stars shouldn’t have children he says. Maybe he’s right. But he realizes that not having children has seriously messed him up. Cheyenne’s journey to complete this outrageous task for his father, who he only knew in, as he says, a general sort of way, is opening his eyes to life again, bring forth new ideas. Like Jack Kerouac’s classic novel On the Road, all this film made me want to do was get in the car and fall off the grid for a bit. Never own a cell phone, says Cheyenne. Never.
The character of Cheyenne is even more layered than one would probably imagine. There’s a lot going on behind the powder and make up and facade that he puts up to protect himself. There’s a youthful innocence hiding inside him that can’t be ignored. He cracks jokes – even at his lowest moments – and follows them up with a strange, awkward laugh. He’s alive inside, but dead outside. He discovers that part of himself by returning home and traveling by himself.
“What are you doing in this god forsaken place?” the tattooed stranger asks Cheyenne midway through his journey. “I’m looking for a Nazi criminal from Auschwitz,” responds Cheyenne. That wasn’t the expected response, I’m sure. Sorrentino’s film is full of nuggets of weird wisdom. Example: “It’s not a question of being careful, it’s a question of knowing how to play ping pong.” Ain’t that the truth.
But the film is full of actual straightforward quips of truth too. When he’s told “that’s life,” Cheyenne cleverly responds saying that “We go from an age where we say my life will be that to an age where we say that’s life.” There’s a scary amount of truth to that statement. Growing up, Cheyenne aspired for what exactly? To be a world famous rock star? Seems like that was achieved. But now what? He’s bored. That’s life. There’s nothing to look forward to anymore, there’s no planning left anymore. This journey is scaring him but only because he’s finding out too much about himself along the way. He didn’t want that, but he accepts it. The film’s ending provides an inspiring moment.
This Must Be the Place isn’t all perfect though. While it has a number of interesting and unique relationships between characters, a few aren’t as deep and as explained as they could have been. The husband/wife relationship itself is only utilized very briefly to explore some of Cheyenne’s emotions and his relationship with the young Mary isn’t clear at all. But because the chunk of the film’s purpose is exploring Cheyenne while he’s on a journey, it’s forgivable.
And so like Sorrentino’s uneven film, I myself am writing an uneven review. Like Sorrentino’s film, this review will never win an award. It’s just too meandering, slow, weird and alienating for some. But This Must Be the Place is one of the most interesting films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s the kind of original filmmaking Hollywood would just hate to give too much applause for. Penn’s performance is so weird and peculiar, and he nails it. It lacks the powerful punch keeping it from being award-worthy to most voters, but I can’t see why it wouldn’t be deserved to be talked about. It’s just that unique.
If you’ve read all the words I’ve written here, you should probably just go watch the film. I can’t imagine you not being interested now. I hope. The film pushed buttons with me, and not just because I am a big Talking Heads fan. The ideals and themes rubbed off on me the right way. Maybe it’ll do the same for you.