Frank

UK / Ireland 2014

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Writers: Jon Ronson & Peter Straughan

Runtime: 95 minutes

 

For anyone seeking an alternative to (or respite from) the relentless onslaught of summer blockbusters (so far: Pompeii, Spiderman 2, Godzilla), there can be few better recommendations than the decidedly oddball Frank. As a story this is almost impossible to categorise, but ultimately it is a kind of paen to outsider art. The idea was developed by journalist/writer Jon Ronson (The Men Who Stare at Goats) and draws upon his experiences as sometime keyboard player for the real life Frank Sidebottom, a fictional stage character created by  Chris Sievey.

As Sidebottom Sievey would take to the stage wearing an outsized round mask with big wide eyes (literally an “odd ball”) and adopt a relentlessly cheerful, optimistic persona, whilst he and his band delivered the audience an unpredictable show that might include some ramshackle music, stand-up comedy, and even lectures. But whereas many of the artists in Sievey’s orbit would go on to achieve great fame and success, he not only seemed disinterested in reaching for such a goal but appeared to actively sabotage opportunities that might have led in that direction. As described by Jon Ronson, Chris Sievey was undeniably eccentric but essentially normal. The movie Frank does not pretend to be a biopic of Sievey/Sidebottom, but instead imagines a fictional Frank who never removes his mask, and explores the relationship between Frank, his bandmates, and the tensions between artistic originality and commercialism.

The story begins with Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a young man wandering along a seafront and struggling to compose lyrics based on the things he sees around him. He witnesses the police and an ambulance crew trying to prevent a man from drowning himself in the sea. This would-be suicide turns out to be the keyboard player in a band with the unpronounceable name Soronprfbs. As the wretched keyboardist is taken away to have the seawater pumped from his stomach, Jon strikes up a conversation with Don (Scoot McNairy), who is the band’s manager. When Jon mentions that he plays keyboards, Don disappears back to the band’s van and then returns to say that Frank (Michael Fassbender) has invited Jon to play at that evening’s gig. On stage, Jon is momentarily discombobulated by the sight of Frank’s enormous fake head, but soon finds himself enjoyably settling into their eccentric musical groove.

Soon afterwards Don tells Jon that Frank has invited him to play with the band in Ireland. Thinking that this is just an overnight gig, Jon – who has a regular day job – is startled to discover, once in Ireland, that they are there to record a new album (“I’ve only packed one pair of underpants!” he complains). Worse, with the exception of Don and Frank, the various band members take an inexplicable dislike to Jon and his presence among their group,  especially the theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who seems to ooze contempt from every pore. The tension is not improved by Jon’s attempts to nudge Frank in a slightly more commercial direction.

Frank is one of the few modern films to fully recognise the ubiquitous presence of social media in our everyday lives. The narrative is regularly peppered with Jon’s Twitter updates to a slowly increasing audience of followers, and unbeknownst to the rest of the band he circulates YouTube clips of their rehearsals. When they eventually become aware of this there is outrage among everybody but Frank, who is naively thrilled to discover that twenty-seven thousand people are apparently following the band.  On the strength of this he agrees to the suggestion that the band should play at an American music festival that has a slot to promote interesting new groups. However, once in America all the tensions within the band, and between artistic integrity and commercial realism, come to a head.

If the film can be said to falter at all, it is towards the end where it feels the need to explain the character of Frank. This is not badly done, but it is perhaps just a little too pat. Maybe it would have been just as satisfactory for Frank’s character to remain a mystery. Nonetheless, in its tribute to those who wish to plough the lonely furrow of their own unique artistic vision, come what may, I thought the finale was emotionally satisfying. There are fine performances all round, especially from Gyllenhaal and Fassbender.

Rating: 8/10

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Comments
  1. liamdoesfilm says:

    Really looking forward to checking this out! Great write up man

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks – hope you enjoy it too!

    Like

  3. Annie Oakley says:

    I can’t wait for this one and I enjoyed your review

    Like

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