Running Time: 95 Minutes
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Starring- Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Scoot McNairy
(Moviehouse Dublin Road screening 07/05/2014)
HOW to describe Frank? That’s the quandary facing Lenny Abrahamson’s pseudo pop-flick that reaches for the far corners of offbeat black comedy. An exploration into the mental processes of the avant-garde musician, the film is inspired by memoirs of Jon Ronson, a writer and journalist who for a period in his life played keyboards for the late Frank Sidebottom.
Unmistakable for his nasal Mancunian accent, leftfield cabaret routine and of course wearing an oversized, doe-eyed papier-mâché head, Sidebottom was the bizarre alter-ego of the late Chris Sievey. Now the mantle has passed to Michael Fassbender, and while the film isn’t a biopic of Sidebottom or Sievey, it certainly doesn’t lack any of the entertainer’s anarchic spirit.
Domnhall Gleeson steps into Ronson’s shoes as Jon, a young keyboard player with a dream of reaching stardom, but sapped of his creative drive by the monotony of his 9-to-5 day job. However, all it takes is a chance meeting with the dysfunctionally experimental rock band Soronprfb and his life his changed forever.
“Can you play C, F and G?” seems to be the only experience necessary and it isn’t long before Jon finds himself on stage alongside Soronprfb, witnessing first-hand the eccentricities of the band’s leader, Frank. Despite protests from the other members of the band, spearheaded by the delightfully wicked theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Jon is invited to become the full-time keyboard player, taking him on a journey from Wicklow to Texas, as he wonders all the while what goes on inside the head inside THAT head.
Throughout the film Jon captures his experience and shares it with the world through social media. The band’s bizarre approach to finding their perfect sound is posted on YouTube, propelling them into somewhat hipstery, cult stardom while Jon finds himself a celebrity in his own right, questioning the methodology of Frank and criticizing the intentions of his fellow band-mates via Twitter, posting on screen for the audience to read.
Jon’s approach to finding fame and fortune seems to satire the music industry today. He seizes the oddity of Frank as a scheme to propel himself into the spotlight, putting gimmickry and publicity before the music itself. It’s a path that so many take, choosing to bypass creative process in favor of getting those precious fifteen minutes of fame.
Ironically, Frank subverts all that. “He’s 100% the sanest cat I’ve ever met,” band manager Don (Scoot McNairy) tells Jon. It’s a hard truth to take at first, particularly amidst the wacky hijinks that apparently inspire Frank to write music. Some of compared the Frank story to that of other musical lunatics such as Captain Beefheart or Syd Barrett, with this incarnation of Frank acting as a poster boy for avant-garde musicians.
But whether he’s recording sound bites from Mother Nature or singing about a little tuft of stray wool, you realize there’s innocence and purity in his music. When the band finally does record a song, it’s one of mesmerizing mayhem and enthralling anarchy, and a far cry from the ukelele parodies of Smiths and Queen singles.
Absurdity gives way to tragedy in the film’s final act and it’s at that point you remember that there’s a truth buried somewhere in this yarn. Behind the fantasy of fame, fortune and facades masks a story about mental illness. The cartoonish head is a shield, protecting a somewhat fractured personality rather than a gimmick to propel him into the limelight.
He comedically describes his facial expressions verbally. But just like the Mona Lisa, the head is expressionally ambiguous, eerily still providing a seemingly emotional response without moving a muscle. It’s just another weird and magical twist in this already bizarre tale.
Ronson’s memoir can only take us so far, and the film builds upon the legend of Frank Sidebottom in order to breathe new life into a papier-mâché icon. Whimsical, sharp, funny and sweet, there’s a definitely a method to Frank’s madness, and by not going down the straight-up biopic route, the film sticks to the anarchic, chaotic, alternative scheming that both Sidebottom and Sievey would have been proud of.
Review by Leigh Forgie