0214 | Frank


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.

The Basics:
Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson
Written by: John Ronson, Peter Straughan
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, François Civil, Carla Azar
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 93 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 7.9

Comments 18

  1. CMrok93 December 15, 2014

    I feel like this movie was too in love with its own self for me to fully embrace it as much as it wanted me to. Shame, too, because I like just about everybody involved with this. Just not here. Good review.

  2. thomasjford December 15, 2014

    I really liked Frank. I too grew up seeing this odd papier mache headed guy on TV when I was a kid, and thinking ‘WTF’?!! I wasn’t sure if I would therefore like this but I thought it, and all the actors, were excellent. Maybe I could appreciate it more because I’m English though, rather than an American audience?

    • Stu December 15, 2014

      Hi Thomas, I remember him on TV a lot too, and also in magazines for some reason! I also wondered whether this would play better with British audiences as a result but I think the move to make the character American here is a smart one (also the presence of Fassbender will probably sway a few floaters who weren’t sure what to make of the trailer).

  3. keith7198 December 15, 2014

    Okay, I have got to break down and watch this. I’ve heard so many good things about it. The cast has always intrigued me but it looked so peculiar. Then again, peculiar isn’t always bad.

    • Stu December 15, 2014

      I’m not surprised! It’s the kind of thing that would cause the occasional nightmare that head. It’s a very moving ending with that song; I might check the rest of the soundtrack out at some point.

    • Stu December 15, 2014

      Yeah, me too. I remember reading your review ages ago but had still been a little wary as I thought the wackiness would start to grate after a while. Glad that wasn’t the case. Fassbender was good and I thought Gleeson really grew into the film, especially as it got more sombre.

    • Stu December 15, 2014

      Actually given the number of super-hero films coming up an Oscar for Best Performance In A Mask Or False Head is a good shout. Fair play to him for taking on the role, he did a lot with it and I hope he carries on looking for equally interesting roles.

    • Stu December 16, 2014

      Thanks! That’s a shame, I really liked the fact the film took a different turn in the second act. I thought it was a little predictable that the character would get his shot at redemption at the end but other than that I thought Gleeson got better as his character became more irritating.

  4. Todd Benefiel December 16, 2014

    I wondered what this film with the big scary head was all about…thanks for clarifying with a fun review! It sounds like my kind of film, so I’ll give it a look when it hits the library. Funny, though, that I haven’t seen it advertised in any theaters here; did you see it in a theater there, or on disc?

    • Stu December 17, 2014

      I think it probably had a limited release in the US earlier this year; it was in quite a few cinemas in the UK back in spring but I only caught it recently at my local place, which tends to show this kind of thing a few months later. Thanks, Todd.

  5. Mark Walker February 18, 2015

    Found this in my email notifications mate. Thought I’d already stopped by here but I noticed my absence. As you know, I hugely enjoyed this one. As Mark and Chris have already said, it’s one of my favourites from last year. A real little quirky delight and I just loved Fassbender’s performance.

    • Stu February 19, 2015

      Thanks for stopping by mate, much appreciated! It was hovering around my top ten as well (maybe just outside in the end) but I really enjoyed it and I’ll probably go back to it at some point. When I saw it I’d watched about 4 or 5 other films in as 2 or 3 days and was a bit fed up with having to review them, so wasn’t in the best frame of mind. Great stuff by Fassbender – even the song at the end.

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