Frank

June 21, 2014
Michael Fassbender & Domhnall Gleeson in 'Frank' (2014)
Michael Fassbender & Domhnall Gleeson in 'Frank' (2014)

Frank is a movie that makes a fiction out of a difficult truth. The model for the lead character, who spends almost the entire movie walking around with a large papier-maché head lodged on his shoulders, was Frank Sidebottom, the creation of Chris Sievey (1955-2010), a wannabee rock star who found that wearing a different head conferred a different personality.

Frank Sidebottom’s Oh Blimey Big Band became a cult phenomenon in the north of England in the early 2000s, playing deranged covers of wellknown pop songs at pubs and clubs. When Sievey died unexpectedly of cancer he was penniless, but a whiparound on the internet raised enough money to bury him in style and to erect a statue of Frank in his home town, Timperley, in Greater Manchester.

Those who knew the original Frank Sidebottom will meet a different character on screen. The Frank in Lenny Abrahamson’s film is also the leader of an obscure band, but he hails from Kansas, not Manchester. While Sievey would remain masked for long periods, the fictional Frank never removes the head.

Jon Ronson, who played keyboards for Frank Sidebottom, before becoming a successful author, has co-scripted a film that explores madness and creativity in the music industry. His Frank is a musical genius who acts as a guru to the rest of the band, imposing his personality and his rigorous tastes on everyone else.

Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young, naive musician who gets drawn into the band – the unpronounceable “Soronprfbs” – when the regular keyboard player has a breakdown and tries to drown himself. His dreams of rock stardom are soon submerged in Frank’s perfectionist plans for recording an album, which entails many months sequestered in a log cabin in Ireland. The model, according to Ronson, was Captain Beefheart’s recording process for the album, Trout Mask Replica, in which he locked the band in a house in the L.A. suburbs for 8 months, feeding them soy beans, and breaking down their psychological defences by yelling “You hate your mother!” over and over.

In defence of Captain Beefheart, there is a significant body of opinion that Trout Mask Replica is one of the greatest records every made.

As the weeks drag on in Ireland, tensions develop between Jon and the other band members, including Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a borderline psycho. He realises that his musical sensibility is out of step with his colleagues. It is Frank who lends a sympathetic ear and smooths over the antagonisms. To Jon’s amazement he shows that one can write a song about a tuft of thread sticking out from a piece of fabric.

Finally, at Jon’s urging, the band are ready to play at a gig in Texas, but the fragile chemistry of Frank’s mind is torn between the pursuit of fame and the resolute purity of his musical goals.

One could describe Frank as a comedy, but there is a pathos to every scene. Whatever we think of Frank’s undeniable talents, he remains deeply weird – a paradigm of the outsider artist who thinks and acts differently from everyone else. He is a kind of savant, spectacularly good at some things but hopeless with the small tasks of everyday existence. The band is his surrogate family and the disciples of his cult of personality.

Under the big papier-maché head is Michael Fassbender, in one of the strangest roles of a highly diverse career. For almost the entire film we never see his face. It is not a simple matter of a man who hides behind a mask to relieve his insecurities – the mask contains a personality in its own right. It is the catalyst Frank needs to bring his vision to life.

It would be wrong to describe Frank as a musical. The music is omnipresent but fragmented, only coming together in the final song, I Love You All, which has the makings of an anthem. It is a love letter from the margins to the mainstream, celebrating a wayward musical talent that cannot fall in line but still craves the spotlight. Frank’s strangeness acts as a veiled critique of social conformism and the dangers of stepping outside the boundaries. So many people in the music industry strive to be different, but to be genuinely different may be a curse rather than a blessing.

Frank
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Screenplay by Jon Ronson & Peter Straughan
Starring Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Scoot McNairy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Francois Civil, Carla Azar
UK/Ireland, rated MA15+, 95 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 21 June, 2014.