By Alistair Ryder
Despite the oversized Paper-Mache head, the fact the screenplay was co-written by “The Men Who Stare at Goats” author Jon Ronson (whose newspaper article about his time as part of Frank Sidebottom’s backing band inspired the film) and the end credits notification that the film is dedicated to Mark Sievy, the original man beneath the mask, “Frank” is not about Frank Sidebottom. Instead, it uses the quasi-iconic Sidebottom imagery to explore what it is like to be an unconventional genius, whose time in the limelight will seemingly never come, in a blackly comic, openly heartfelt and just plain bonkers fashion. It’s a film that, like the music of its titular character, takes pride in not being for everyone’s taste.
Domnhall Gleeson stars as Jon, a failing singer-songwriter whose every musical idea is either terrible or generic. By chance, one day he encounters the keyboardist of a band called “Soronprfbs” (whose own band members don’t know how to pronounce their name) trying to drown himself in the sea, as the other band members watch on; it soon becomes clear that the band go through more keyboardists than Spinal Tap go through drummers. After making an idle remark about playing keyboards, he’s invited into the band, and he becomes the understudy of their paper Mache head wearing singer Frank (Michael Fassbender, in yet another brilliant performance), a musical perfectionist in the same vein as Captain Beefheart or Brian Wilson. Jon, with his bland, Radio-2 musical sensibilities, and his increasing influence over Frank’s musical direction, threatens to tear the band apart by trying to turn them into the mainstream indie outfit they were never destined to be.
The sub-genre of tragi-comedy is possibly the hardest to pull off, and in a film with so many surrealist flights of fancy, it’s remarkable the film manages to be laugh-out loud funny (“His name was Josef Fritzl, you cunt!”) and emotionally resonant at the same time. Director Lenny Abrahamson’s filmography is littered with attempts at perfecting this tone; his debut film “Adam and Paul” was unsuccessful as it never convinced me why I should care about the titular heroin addicts on their path to self-destruction, and his previous film “What Richard Did” managed to be funny and heartfelt, just not at the same time due to a narrative key-change in the middle. All of his films I’ve seen are to some extent about the psyches of people undergoing extreme behaviour- due to the elongated time period in which this film is set (compared to the 24 hour time frames of his aforementioned previous efforts) we were allowed to see in more detail the effects and the cause of why Frank (and to an equal extent, his Soronprfrbs bandmates) is the man he is, and how this effects his creativity. Despite the surreal qualities, it’s Abrahamson’s most accessible film to date, which is remarkable for something so boldly inaccessible.