Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo, a masterly film portrait of the ultimate political survivor Guilio Andreotti, so impressed Sean Penn at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival that he told the Italian director he would be happy to consider appearing in any future film he made.
Taking the bull by the horns Sorrentino went away and wrote the part of a former Goth-rock star with Penn in mind. To his delight and amazement, Penn accepted immediately.
Sean Penn plays Cheyenne, a 50-year-old adolescent with the slow, awkward gait of an intense teenager carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Cheyenne is described by Sorrentino as “childish, but not capricious. Like many adults who remain anchored in their childhood he has a knack of maintaining only the limpid, touching and bearable qualities of kids”.
For the role, Penn adopts a camp, emotionally detached voice yet despite his apparent boredom , bordering on depression, he is always fully engaged with those he speaks with. There are some great one liners that would have fallen flat if he had played the part in a more extravagant manner.
The general look of the character, with bright red lipstick and a ‘pulled through the hedge backwards’ hairstyle is, unsurprisingly, based on The Cure’s Robert Smith.
The movie’s title is taken from a track by The Talking Heads and we hear various versions of the song during the course of the movie. The best of these is a live rendition with David Byrne and band at a New York hotspot.
Byrne plays himself in as an old friend of Cheyenne’s. The contrast between the two is stark with the uber-cool DB looking like a fallen angel all in white (hair included) while the lost Cheyenne, dressed from head to toe in black, seems cursed to live out his days frozen in a vague memory of his past glories.
The death of his estranged father reluctantly takes Cheyenne from his retirement mansion in Dublin back to New York. He discovers his father, a holocaust survivor, had an obsession to seek revenge for a humiliation he had suffered in Auschwitz. Intrigued by this story, Cheyenne embarks on an unlikely mission to seek out his father’s persecutor, partly to relieve the tedium of his life and also to belatedly discover something of his estranged father’s past.
Sorrentino said that he took some inspiration from another offbeat road movie , David Lynch’s A Straight Story, and it seemed to me to that he also borrows ideas and themes from David Byrne’s True Stories in that it views quirkier aspects of American life in the same way that an enthusiastic tourist engages with a foreign country. The Holocaust related quest also make me think of the novel and movie Everything Is Illuminated.
The soundtrack is exceptional. It’s always the sign of a director on top of his game when the music works to enhance the visuals rather than serving as some vague, tuneful backdrop. Sorrentino could easily have taken the soft option of a late 70s Goth-Rock mix of Siouxsie & The Banshees, Bauhaus, The Cure, The Mission etc. which might have reflected Cheyenne’s tastes but wouldn’t have fitted in with the story at all. Instead he shows immaculate taste by including songs by Will Oldham (Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy), Vic Chesnutt, Iggy Pop, Jonsì & Alex and Julia Kent.
Great though the movie is, it is by no means flawless. As a portrait of modern America there’s freshness and humour while the serious parallel plot of the Nazi criminal is far less convincing.
Still, it is easy to overlook such weaknesses in a fresh and humane movie that is by turns touching, funny, sad and unpredictable.