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Music and movies are a tough business. Many films have told stories of the hardships, of artists getting chewed up by the machine. No doubt most are pretty accurate. With Len and Company, it’s less about on set and on stage breakdowns of the system that destroy the young, but rather the aftermath of it all for a man who made it through and then gave it up.
Len Black (Rhys Ifans) is one of those groundbreakers from England who grew up hard and with nothing who made a band that somehow had a hit. He went through the drugs and parties and girls and survived long enough to start a record company in New York City. He got rich. Very rich. And yet when his latest client, a young party-girl pop singer is ready to release her newest album, he thinks its dreadful. At an award ceremony where she and he are meant to collect a statue, he up and walks away. It stuns the industry.
He escapes to his upstate home, surrounded by wide open lands for miles in all directions, intent on forever leaving behind his former life. Not long after he arrives, his teenage son Max (Jack Kilmer), shows up with an overnight bag. He hasn’t spent much time with his old man, but has intentions other than connecting with his father. He’s got his own band that he thinks has a chance and wants his producer dad to have a listen. When he gets there, a boy named William (Keir Gilchrist) who is nearly his age, is also spending time with Len, so much so Len speaks at his school on career day.
Max tries to understand but before anyone can really connect, in comes Zoe (Juno Temple), the pop star. She’s exhausted from the party life, a bitter young woman whose grown up in the spotlight with all aspects of her life picked apart by the media. But since it’s literally the only life she’s ever known, it’s just numbing, not catastrophic. She came to find out why he left her, but it’s obvious there is more for why she’s come.
Directed by Tim Godsall, Len and Company is not about music. There are no scenes of concerts and backstage debacles. There are no tour buses or throngs of crazed fans. What it is about is rebuilding. It’s led by another terrific performance by Ifans, who is perfectly cast as the cynical producer scrambling to tear down the memories of his past and the temptations to do it again. In one scene he carries a box of studio audio cables and a shovel into the woods. When asked by William why he’s doing this, the reply is direct: “So I won’t record anything.”
Kilmer is good, too, who we recently saw in The Nice Guys. Tall and lanky like Ifans, he is convincing as a boy still taken by the wonder of music and the potential it has, unmoved by his father’s dissatisfaction yet confused by his seemingly irreverent talks about the business. All he wants is an honest assessment of his band’s music, something that Len avoids for most of the film, for reasons that make sense and have weight. When he does, as we know he will, what happens next feels inspired. Temple is also strong, and is modeled after any number of young overly-sexualized female pop stars, though this fact makes it slightly hard to believe that she makes it to Len’s home (and is seen going through a fast food drive-through) without the media finding her. An incident later assures us that she is discovered, but this is a minor issue. Temple is strong here, and has a moment that is jarring, but not over-sentimentalized. What in any other big budget movie would be the centerpiece and overly dramatized is instead a very personal and quietly affecting moment.
Len and Company is a restrained film with a compelling character that isn’t so dark and ‘indie’ that it takes a lot of effort to stay with him. Ifans isn’t interested in over-indulging in the clichés of the disenchanted soul searcher. When he asks Max to smash his signature electric guitar, it isn’t meant to represent his own disgust at the industry but as a method to make his son do something uncharted, unrestricted and untamed in the name of music. I’ll leave if for you to learn whether Max does or does not. Ifans is very good.
Some may be disappointed by the lack of actual music and the decidedly countryside setting, but these are easy obstacles to overcome in a film rich with character development and authenticity. It is a few days in the life of a man at a junction that is less a crossroads than a rest stop with an impressive view both behind and in front. By the time Len and his company have made their way to the end, we might not know all the answers, but the questions are beautiful.
Director: Tim Godsall
Writers: Tim Godsall, Katharine Knight
Stars: Rhys Ifans, Juno Temple, Jack Kilmer, Kathryn Hahn