Forty-something alternative music fans are likely to recognise the large fibreglass cartoon head that stars in FRANK. However, prior knowledge of the British band frontman Frank Sidebottom is not a pre-requisite: FRANK stands on its own as an intriguing exploration of blurred lines between the intensively creative and the mentally ill. Starring roles for Michael Fassbender and Maggie Gyllenhaal also provide the film with broad appeal.
The ‘real’ Frank was the bizarre alter-ego of Mancunian musician and comedian Chris Sievey, mainly active in the late eighties and early nineties. He achieved cult status with a series of comedy records, leading to a number of national and regional TV appearances, but later fell into obscurity. Frank in the film hails from a small town in the U.S. mid-west and the film is set in the present day. FRANK is far from a biopic, therefore, and rather a fictional piece with an interesting factual concept at its core. This non-fiction aspect is protected by Sievey’s bandmate Jon Ronson’s screenwriting role on the film.
…unconventional band Soronprfbs – the purposefully unpronounceable name complementing their unfathomable style of music.
The story is told from the perspective of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a relatively straightforward keyboard hobbyist. Jon is swept into world of unconventional band Soronprfbs – the purposefully unpronounceable name complementing their unfathomable style of music. Jon joins the band at an early point in their journey; they believe they have tapped into a new sound that they can further develop by retreating to rural Ireland, for an unspecified amount of time, until they have focused in on music worthy of their first recording. Irish Director Lenny Abrahamson may support the notion that the Emerald Isle may provide a much-needed sprinkle of artistic magic.
Removed from his mundane and ordinary existence, Jon is enthralled by Frank, an enigmatic character who hides behind a mysterious mask. Frank offers Jon encouragement on the path to creative enlightenment and his desired close proximity to an as-yet-undiscovered new zeitgeist. The rest of the band members are less welcoming, especially the widely eccentric Clara who is brilliantly played by Gyllenhaal. Despite their attempts to keep Jon outside the circle, he dedicates his nest egg to the band’s creative development and uses his commercial awareness and social media nous to build them an audience – leading to a slot at muso mecca, the SXSW festival. But he makes the mistake of pursuing likeability for Soronprfbs, without first establishing whether the band really cares about it.
At its heart FRANK is the story of a group of tortured souls who seem to use creativity as a spiritual outlet rather than a route to financial reward and critical acclaim. These individuals are so out there on the edge that they need a safe word for when it all gets a little too crazy. The word they use, Chinchilla, perfectly articulates their borderline insanity in its own artful randomness.
Hiding Fassbender inside for the majority of the film may seem like a travesty to some…
With his artificial head, Frank brings mystique to the band but also stunts his ability to express himself fully – he has to verbally describe his facial expressions (“welcoming smile”). It seems the fear of revealing fully what’s going inside that head is too great to contemplate. Hiding Fassbender inside a full head mask for the majority of the film may seem like a travesty to some, but putting a Hollywood star in this role adds depth and suspense. The difficulty in pinning the character of Frank down by common standards is aptly demonstrated when Jon’s attempts at description for a police missing persons report are vague to the point of useless.
FRANK is an entertaining and comical trip with a poignant thread running through it about the inner torment that can provide musical inspiration. It also presents an argument for freak or unique skill being left to roam free rather than attempting to channel it into a commercially viable format, despite the most innocent of intentions.