A romp through the travails of the rock industry evolves into a moving study of an artist ill-equipped for fame
Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy
Star rating: * * * *
First things first: Frank isn’t a biopic of Frank Sidebottom creator Chris Sievey. For much of the film Michael Fassbender may sport the striking, over-sized, papier-mâché head that made Sievey’s alter-ego such an oddball figure on the alternative comedy circuit of the 1980s and early 1990s, but it’s not a film about his creation nor of Sievey’s life, which came to a sad end when he died of throat cancer in relative poverty at the age of 54 in 2010. Instead, journalist, broadcaster and the film’s co-writer Jon Ronson has transformed his own brief tenure as a keyboard player in Frank Sidebottom’s band into a wonderfully strange and deceptively poignant meditation on the nature of art and creativity in an industry that has historically sought to commodify and mythologise its eccentric outliers without taking the time to understand who they really are or why they act like they do.
Not that Frank really starts out that way. Told from the glib point of view of Ronson cipher Jon (newly anointed Star Wars cast member Domhnall Gleeson), the film, directed by Lenny Abrahamson, begins in breezy fashion as Jon dreams of musical stardom and an escape from the bland, suburban environs of his English seaside home town. He finds what he’s looking for after a chance encounter with vowel-challenged avant-garde rock outfit The Soronprfbs, who have arrived in his hometown only to find themselves minus a keyboard player after he attempts to drown himself in the sea. Offering his services, Jon is recruited on the spot by the Soronprfbs’ depressed manager (Scoot McNairy) and arrives for his first gig bewildered and bowled-over by the band’s agoraphobic, fake-head-sporting American frontman Frank (Fassbender), an orchestrator of musical chaos and quite possibly a creative genius.
Frank’s music – composed by Stephen Rennicks, but performed live in the film by the cast – is a swirling mix of lo-fi psychedelia, found sounds and wrong notes, barely held together by Frank’s singular talent for shaping disparate noise into weirdly meaningful melodies. To a talentless wannabe like Jon (and the true extent of his mediocrity is gradually revealed as the film progresses), it’s unfathomable how music so seemingly random and simple can be so beautiful when his own efforts at composition extend to Madness rip-offs and lyrics so banal they attract the instant scorn of Frank’s bandmates, particularly Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), The Soronprfbs’ stone-faced Theremin player and chief enabler of Frank’s disguise-sporting existence. Not wishing to return to his humdrum existence, Jon buys his way into their creative life by using a small inheritance to fund the recording of their album. Clearly hoping Frank’s musical genius will rub off on him by proxy, his one contribution to the group is to spread their lore by surreptitiously posting their rehearsals on YouTube and documenting their unconventional approach to recording for his growing army of intrigued Twitter followers.
It’s here that Abrahamson starts gradually darkening the film as Frank becomes intrigued by the potential audience for his work and lets Jon’s populist, commercial instincts influence the direction of the band. Though Frank likes Jon, he doesn’t quite comprehend the toxic effect this newcomer is inadvertently having on his music, just as Jon doesn’t fully understand that Frank’s behaviour is not an act or a contrived persona that can be easily exploited to create an air of mystery around the group. There’s also a jollity to Frank that’s quite sweet and endearing, and while the head adds an enigmatic dimension to Fassbender’s performance, the actor manages to peel away the layers of mythology that have grown up around eccentric artists over the years to reveal something more fragile and raw and heartbreakingly ordinary about those that find themselves on the cusp of greatness without the emotional tools to cope.
Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson and Captain Beefheart are obvious real life touchstones here, but there’s an element too of Kurt Cobain in Frank’s naïve craving for both the adoration of the mainstream audience Jon promises he can reach, and the integrity-preserving safety afforded by toiling away in semi-obscurity with the rest of his band. Most poignantly, though, Abrahamson and Ronson also appear to have drawn on the life of cult American musician Daniel Johnston, a bipolar sufferer who became the subject of a record industry bidding war after Cobain publically endorsed his albums in the early 1990s. The closing scenes in particular recall moments in the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston in which Johnston’s parents talk movingly about their son’s condition. It’s a brilliant tonal shift by Abrahamson, done so subtly as to be almost imperceptible, but allowing him to expose the sad reality at the heart of the film without descending into rock ‘n’ roll clichés. This is a film that earns its artistic credibility as it progresses. Great stuff.