I saw Frank Sidebottom, the character created by the eccentric performance artist, comedian and musician Chris Sievey, on a few occasions in the early 1990s. Each time I felt like there was a huge joke being shared in the room that I wasn’t in on, such was the feverish mirth Sidebottom inspired in his followers, but I dutifully accompanied one of my friends – a huge fan – whenever Frank played my town anyway. By the third gig I knew a few songs and began to feel like I could be part of this most surreal of clubs, but my friend moved away and I never witnessed Sidebottom’s peculiar sound and strange brand of comedy again; Sievey sadly died of cancer in 2010 at the age of 54.
The writer Jon Ronson once played keyboards in Sidebottom’s backing band – he replaced former BBC Radio 1 DJ Mark Radcliffe, incidentally – and he drew on this experience to write Frank with Peter Straughan. Lenny Abrahamson has turned their screenplay into an engaging, likeable and inclusive film, and although the name ‘Sidebottom’ isn’t referred to specifically, it’s clear from the papier-mâché head worn here by Michael Fassbender that Sievey’s creation is the main inspiration. This ‘Frank’ is American, though, whereas Sievey was born and raised in the suburbs of Manchester; in fact once you get past the false head the character in this film mainly brings to mind US-based musical mavericks of yore: Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and Brian Wilson, to name but three.
Domhnall Gleeson stars as a vaguely-nerdy young amateur musician named Jon, who steps in at short notice to play keyboards for Frank’s band, indie act The Soronprfbs (the unpronouncable name allows for a successful and amusing running gag). Like all the coolest bands they’re an odd-looking gang, managed by Scoot McNairy’s hip impresario Don, and including among their number Baraque (François Civil), Nana (Carla Azar, a drummer in real life) and the icy, psychotic Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays a theremin and threatens to steal many of her scenes). Jon ends up quitting his job and making an album with his new comrades, gaining a degree of social media-driven notoriety along the way, and forms a strong bond with the impressionable, enigmatic Frank.
The old tale of a band on the rise getting to grips with the demands of the music business is given a lo-fi, up-to-date spin, with an appearance at the South By Southwest festival in Texas representing something of a pinnacle for The Soronprfbs. Of course it’s not about the destination, it’s the journey that matters, and along the way Jon acts as our narrator, guiding us through his early gigs and a prolonged recording process in rural Ireland before the inevitable disintegration on the road. As things go pear-shaped it becomes clear that Frank’s mental health isn’t as stable as it ought to be, and Ronson and Abrahamson commendably address this in a touching, mature and heartfelt fashion. The story also incorporates social media in an interesting way, with the popularity of Jon’s Twitter account reflecting the band’s growing stature in the eyes of clued-up music fans, and YouTube is used as the catalyst for Jon’s insistence that the band take a more commercial direction. The on-screen implosions over creative differences that result may be nothing new, but the Frank character is so intriguing that this band’s ups-and-downs resonate, and it’s nice to see the band’s internal issues given a 21st Century spin with Jon’s desire for more hits and followers.
Gyllenhaal gets to ham it up – a hot tub sex scene is one of the many highlights – while Gleeson nobly falls on his sword as the flawed, popularity-seeking protagonist who – in a nutshell – ruins everything by eventually tainting the band’s odd chemistry. Best of all is Fassbender, which is quite impressive considering the fact that he is wearing a false head for much of the film. It requires a very physical performance, with limbs and gestures making up for the fact that we can’t see his face, and in a strange way his appearance in Frank further cements his place as one of the better actors working today. Together – as a band – this group of actors are completely believable, and credit must go to the composer Stephen Rennicks for his original works here, which range from the amusingly-twee (‘Frank’s Most Likeable Song’) to out-there-somewhere psychedelic drone rock jams, with the show-stopping finale ‘I Love You All’ the clear highlight.
The director, writers and the cast and crew manage to distinguish Frank from the umpteen rags-to-riches-to-rags tales out there thanks to a healthy dose of quirk, made all the more apparent by the film’s refusal to acknowledge the outside world for long periods; we stay with the band throughout, and after a while their bizarre recording habits and Frank’s semi-cryptic utterances begin to feel normal, as if life with The Soronprfbs is completely balanced and it is in fact the rest of the world that is skew-whiff. This warm film champions the idea of the outsider artist, celebrates eccentricity and paints a somewhat romantic and bittersweet picture of the maverick flying in the face of public indifference; two other films I’ve enjoyed a lot recently, Lukas Moodyson’s We Are The Best and Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner, do exactly the same. Frank is certainly the weirdest of those three, though, and highly enjoyable as a result.
Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson
Written by: John Ronson, Peter Straughan
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, François Civil, Carla Azar
Running Time: 93 minutes