Release Date: 9th May 2014
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy
The bulbous papier-mâché bonce of Frank Sidebottom was a common sight in the 80s and 90s, Chris Seivey’s anarchic musical creation seeping into cultural consciousness through radio, television and an affiliation with the Madchester scene seducing the nation. In Lenny Abrahamson’s very funny film, ostensibly a loose-fitting biopic of the bizarre but quite brilliant novelty act seen through the eyes of his sometime keyboard player Jon Ronson, all explicit links to the “real” Frank Sidebottom are jettisoned. It seems to have broader concerns, without ever losing a playful touch. And it’s really quite something; infusing essence of Sidebottom into a fable of celebrity, creativity, madness, and when creativity becomes madness. Or when madness becomes creativity.
Domhnall Gleeson plays the Ronson avatar Jon, a hopelessly dull office drone and appalling aspiring musician craving fame via the torpid, witless ditties he struggles to conceive on the commute. A tragic emblem of artistic impotence, things start to change for Jon when he encounters an American band with an antagonistically unpronouncable name as they watch their keyboard player loudly attempt to drown himself in three feet of sea water. Keyboard players don’t fare well in Soronprfbs, just as drummers endured some startling bad luck in Spinal Tap. An opening in the group is created as the suicidal ivory-tickler is carted-off to hospital, and enigmatic lead singer Frank (Michael Fassbender) agrees to let Jon fill it.
Writers Ronson (now a journalist and author) and Peter Straughan (who adapted Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats and most recently Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy for the screen) turn this simple set-up into something much more sophisticated. Allusions to Captain Beefheart, Syd Barrett and Daniel Johnston are apparent as Jon and the band retreat to a secluded Irish cabin to record an album, the group dynamics and ideas of artistic integrity colliding as conditions become harsher and Frank more erratic and demanding.
Fassbender is superb, managing to be naïve, inspirational, wretched, cynical… all while ensconced in a giant fake head. No mean feat. And Gleeson does well to essay the troubled combination of wide-eyed adoration for his reclusive frontman and a deep-seated ambition for fame. Their relationship – and the differing musical ideologies they represent – provides the central drama. Can Jon’s desire for commercial success ever co-exist with Frank’s drive for originality at all costs? Maggie Gyllenhaal’s delightfully vicious theremin player Clara stirs the pot, her motives unclear and behaviour frequently contradictory. Her’s is another tremendous performance.
A strange, multi-faceted and really quite ambitious piece disguised as small frivolity, Frank manages to combine pathos and laughs almost surreptitiously. Abrahamson’s light direction gives all the weirdness room to breathe; the import of the themes waving over and into you from one oddball, deftly played set-piece to the next. “You’re just going to have to go with this,” offers the titular Svengali to his young protégé, by way of explanation early on. And so should we.