Lenny Abrahamson (Adam & Paul, Garage and What Richard Did) brings Chris Sievey’s alter-ego Frank Sidebottom to the screen with absurd yet heartfelt results. One of the year’s best films…
Following on after his award-winning films Adam & Paul, Garage and What Richard Did, Lenny Abrahamson now gives us Frank, which is loosely inspired by Jon Ronson’s time playing keyboards alongside Frank Sidebottom and his Oh Blimey Big Band. Frank Sidebottom, whose persona was most recognisable thanks to an oversized papier-mâché head, was a cult musician and the surreal comic alter ego of the legendary Chris Sievey. Whilst strictly not a biopic about him, the film instead takes Sievey’s Frank Sidebottom character as a jumping-off point, infusing both the extreme method of Captain Beefheart and the madness of Daniel Johnston. Essentially, Frank is doing what The Men Who Stare at Goats did, which is taking Jon Ronson’s factual writing and then using that as a springboard for a flight of fancy.
Domhnall Gleeson plays the Ronsonesque stand-in, Jon Burroughs, who is this ordinary guy with a yearning to be a musician, and ends up playing keyboards alongside the unpronounceable band called Soronprfbs, after the previous keyboard player attempted to drown himself in the sea. He then agrees to come to Ireland with them to play a gig, thinking that it’s only going to be for the weekend, but ends up staying there for a whole year, just to help them rehearse and record their new album. Whilst there he gets acquainted with the band, including the tormented Dom (Scoot McNairey), the terrifying Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and the enigmatic and mysterious band-leader, Frank, played by Michael Fassbender, who spends nearly the whole film hiding behind a large fake head.
Written by both Ronson and Peter Straughan, they manage to show us, in depth, what the relationship between genius and madness may or may not be, whilst also questioning some of the clichés of that idea. As he demonstrated in both Adam & Paul and What Richard Did, Lenny Abrahamson is someone who’s an acute observer of “borderline” behaviour, showing us characters that are on the very edges of acceptability. He has a terrific eye for that movement between the comic and the tragic, almost like he’s orchestrating it with the ease of a key change. There’s a tonal shift that happens, as the film is playing out, going from a major to a minor key, and as it happens so subtly and so gently, you don’t feel like the film’s being manipulative or jarring.
If you look at the posters for the film, you would imagine the film to be just a zany and wild comedy, but it is, in the end, a tragicomedy, and what pleased me most was how moving and emotional it is. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of laughs en route, because there’s some particularly strange and surreal black comic moments that will genuinely leave you thinking, “blimey!”. However, the really impressive thing about the film is how it goes from the comic into something that is profound, melancholic and genuinely heartfelt.
At the centre of the film, and bearing the heaviest burden, is Michael Fassbender. He’s one of the most recognisable, critically acclaimed actors of the 21st Century yet here he’s wearing a cumbersome mask for nearly the entirety of the film. Yet, what the mask cleverly does is release and elevate Fassbender’s performance rather than weighing it down, and it proves to be his character’s liberation. Combining the finger fiddling theatricality of Frank Sidebottom with the tragic pathos of Daniel Johnston’s twitchy tactility, Fassbender magnificently conjures a character that is fully rounded and blurs the lines of genius and insanity.
An impressive film that is genuinely profound and moving, Frank is one of the most unexpected, strange, offbeat, as well as intelligent, pop movies ever made. It’s not going to be for everyone, but neither are the people who inspired it, but hopefully, audiences will find something to enjoy in it. The screenplay is well written and sparkles throughout, the music works really well, and the performances are fantastic (particularly Fassbender). It’s got heart, wit, soul, edge, and poignancy, and can be dark and absurdist when it needs to be. One of the best of the year.
Written by Ryan Pollard
Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson
Written by: Jon Ronson, Peter Straughan
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, Michael Fassbender
Released: 2014 / Genre: Comedy-Drama / Country: UK/Ireland / IMDB