THE artist known as Frank Sidebottom wasn’t the most likely popular music phenomenon. He sounded like George Formby on helium gas, there were ukuleles, he came from Timperley, and once acted as support to a boyband by singing their hits on stage as atonally as possible. He also wore a giant painted head which he never took off in public. This may have been a wise move if he wanted to avoid furious Bros fans.
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Running time: 95 minutes
In an earlier life, before he became a journalist and writer, Jon Ronson played keyboards for Sidebottom (aka Chris Sievey), and his memories prompted him to write Frank. Since it was first pitched, however, Frank has developed legs. It’s no longer a biopic of the late Sievey, but a broader, fictionalised paean to the likes of Captain Beefheart, Brian Wilson and Syd Barrett – yet the head remains Frank’s.
However, the voice is an affable American (Michael Fassbender) who co-opts Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a young, enthusiastic but not particularly talented musician, into playing keyboards for an avant-garde combo with an unpronounceable name.
Intrigued by the head boy of the band, and hoping his originality might rub off on his own compositions, he joins their retreat to Wicklow, Ireland, to record an album, where Frank’s creative workshops include recording woodland ambience, devising a new system of musical annotation, and boxing bouts. Other challenges include Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who plays the theremin and regards Jon with lascivious hatred, band members who speak only French, and poverty.
Surprisingly, the business of main-taining a giant head is comparatively easy; when taking a shower, Frank tapes himself up with polythene, and passes through border security checks with the cry “I have a certificate!”
Frank is probably the best film about what it feels like to be in a band since Slade’s Flame (no, honestly). It captures the push-pull politics, the joys of collaboration and the misery of clashing egos, but it has more on its mind than that. Specifically, it gets us wondering about the tangled connections between creativity and madness, and how to recognise genuine mental illness in artists – especially when eccentricity is encouraged and cultivated in circles that equate weirdness with artistic brilliance. It never seems to occur to Jon that Frank isn’t interested in being heard by a wider audience, he just enjoys the creative process.
As the only guy in any scene with a head the size of a pumpkin, Fassbender has the advantage of grabbing attention, but Domhnall Gleeson, (son of Brendan) does some great work here as a character who is ambitious and ethically heedless: a twist on the usual youthful purity in rock stories.
Director Lenny Abrahamson and writer Ronson draw a more-or-less direct line from Frank to troubled musical spirits such as Syd Barrett or Daniel Johnston – promising, lively youths whose work had a found-object innocence that became worn down over the years by medication and personal demons. You don’t need to be a music fan to appreciate this movie’s intelligent hat-tip to music savants; Frank Sidebottom’s naive, scraggly-voiced, lo-fi pop never really engaged me. However, I did love Frank.
On general release from Friday