I’m sitting here googling Chris Sievey, the musician and comedian made sporadically famous in the UK largely between the ’70s and ’90s for his creation Frank Sidebottom, feeling as though I’m coming at this knowledge from the wrong end. Having been in my teens in the ’90s I have a recollection of Sievey’s character, but one that is half-formed, murky, not linked intrinsically to one particularly moment or memory. Sadly, for me, Frank Sidebottom was little more than a strange aberration in my youth, as though a singer wearing a large fibreglass false head might be the symptom of bad reception, a bad signal or dodgy VHS tracking. Something wrong with the aerial again.
The motivation for this late-in-the-day investigation is Leonard Abrahamson’s new film Frank, based (seemingly quite loosely) on Sievey’s idiosyncratic alter-ego and out on general release in cinemas this May 9th.
It should be both appealing and encouraging to a cautious audience to learn that this kind of lazy, after-the-fact research is in no way useful or necessary for watching the film, which plays extremely well as a piece of weird fiction by itself. Frank can be viewed with no prior knowledge of Sievey whatsoever, and, divorced from the need to be faithful or referential to the true story (which is out there for you to discover if you feel the urge) represents a charming and quirky peak in an otherwise dismal-seeming season of movie releases.
So amid a glut of worthy-but-not-quite-worthy-enough prestige period dramas and biopics comes Abrahamson’s film, ready to appeal to anyone who has had a personal connection to music, especially in youth. For the most part this feels like a spirited love-letter to the young winsome indie-kid who spent too many evenings pouring over Belle & Sebastian or Smiths lyrics, trying to find intersections with their own experiences or dreaming of what life in a band might be like. For the first half especially, it plays like pure wish fulfilment – a fairytale for the John Peel set.
Domnhall Gleeson’s Jon is our entry point; a young office worker in an anonymous seaside town who dreams of musical glory without actually possessing any talent. He’s more adept at diarising his meagre existence on social media than song-crafting or even soul-searching. A chance encounter allows him the unique experience of playing keyboards for a touring band called The Soronprfbs (yeah, no idea). An off-hand invitation from their curious manager Don (Scoot McNairy) lures Jon away from the routines of his dreary life and to a remote cabin in Ireland where he will help the band lay down their most important artistic statement – the album.
The Soronprfbs’ unique selling point – beyond their delightfully out-of-fashion rhapsodic prog-rock – is Frank (Michael Fassbender), a man with a medical certificate that permits him to live within a large false head (yup, that one), conducting his life from this remove and feeding it into the band’s hypnotic performances. His creative muse comes in the form of the thunderously gloomy Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who clomps around the cabin like a frustrated femme fatale beamed in from another movie by accident.
The movie hunkers down in this wilderness setting for the majority of it’s running time, allowing Jon the opportunity to grow a shaggy beard, and documenting the strange rituals and routines of a set of outsiders attempting to create something coherent together. Evidently it is not an easy process, and is one punctuated as much with cracking humour as it is with perilous introspection and ennui. Frank is very much a comedy, but it doesn’t shy away from pulling the rug out from beneath the audience to underline the costs and frustrations of feeling as though you have something vital to express, but struggling with the execution.
It is in this section, as the film pointedly asks the audience to leave logic at the door and ‘just go with it’ that the parallels between Jon and Frank are most visibly drawn. Frank becomes a sort of idealised or exaggerated version of Jon – an anonymously extroverted and appealing performer whose psychological wounds are still all-too-apparent. Frank’s genius is questionable, but John’s lack of skill or particular maturity isn’t. It places Jon, Frank and Clara at the corners of a curious emotional set-square; the lines between them are never equal, despite Jon’s attempts to reconfigure the band to his own ill-defined preconceptions.
The film’s latter half expands the borders with a trip to Texas and the SXSW festival where, they hope, the world at large will accept The Soronprfbs and their valiant efforts will be recognised. Throughout Frank there is a constant undertone of perceived kooks and outsiders rallying desperately for acceptance. When that goal seems too far out of reach, their individual frailties threaten to destroy not only their unity but their very lives. Somewhat surprisingly, this daft comedy sobers up and offers a thought-provoking journal on the very-real pain of not-quite-making-it.
Don’t be mislead into expecting a dour eulogy for the also-rans. Frank is a superbly crafted, constantly enjoyable comedy detailing the messy, craggy, sulky, shouty, thrusty experience of trying to make it in a prog-rock band against most of the odds. Just know that as whimsical and quirky as that giant fibreglass head is, it also contains a cocktail of troubles and traumas that will eventually show through the cracks.
Frank treads lightly around psychological wounds, embraces music as an outlet for the things we can’t otherwise easily articulate and celebrates the teenage dream of being on stage, ripping it up for an audience. And if it occasionally loses its way then rest assured that it ends on exactly the right note.