Ireland | 2014 | Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Logline: A wannabe songwriter inadvertently joins an eccentric band and attempts to lead them to fame.
Loosely based on the character known as Frank Sidebottom by late British comedian Chris Sievy, but probably also inspired by Sievy’s band that was on the fringes of the late-70s Manchester music scene, Frank tells the tale of young Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), an aspiring keyboardist songwriter, stuck in a rut, until he happens to be in the right place at the right time (or maybe the wrong place at the wrong time) and finds himself hired by Don (Scoot McNairy), the band manager of Soronprfbs (yes, intentionally unpronounceable) after witnessing the band’s keyboardist attempting to commit suicide.
Enter: Frank (Michael Fassbender), the band’s enigmatic frontman, with a large papier-mâché fake head. Frank is a genius, it seems. But initially not perhaps so tortured as Don, or Frank’s possessive sidekick Carla (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and synth/Theremin player. Two other band members, drummer (Nana (Carla Azar) and bassist Baraque (Francois Civil), sift in the background, but say very little. This is Frank’s band, and despite Jon’s best intentions, the left-field musical musings are very much from Frank’s twisted mind.
This is a drama with a strong sense of black humour, but there is an element of mystery that permeates much of the movie, simply because Frank never removes his fake head. Just who is this person really? Is he as crazy as he seems, or is he saner than everyone else? Certainly Don, who was institutionalised for fucking mannequins, and Clara, whose abject disliking of Jon leads them into hot water, seem the more unhinged. Jon abandons his ordinary life to spend months on end #livingthedream with the band in a remote cabin whilst they attempt to record an album.
As Jon grows a beard and continues to blog, tweet, and youtube his experiences he seeks further exposure for the band. The social media tagging pays off and the band find themselves heading to the famous SXSW festival in New Mexico to perform. But just like that lonely tuft of armchair fabric, things will become frayed. There will be tears before bedtime.
Abrahamson has made a delightful movie; part off-beat character study, part zany comedy, but most intriguingly, a drama that deals with mental illness, loneliness, and that dangling carrot called #elusivefame without ever once feeling earnest, ponderous, arrogant, or patronising. The screenplay is Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan. Ronson was one of the members in Frank Sidebottom’s original band; so much of what unfolds on screen must surely have been inspired from his own first-hand experiences. It’s a great script with cracking dialogue.
Hats off to the cast for all-round great performances, especially Domhnall Gleeson and Maggie Gyllenhaal, but a special nod to Michael Fassbender who animates the fake head to perfection through his subtle body language. The few original band songs, penned by Stephen Rennicks, especially the haunting I Love You All, are superb. All of them were performed live by the actors. Frank rocks.
Frank screens as part of the 61st Sydney Film Festival, Tuesday 10th June, 7pm, Event Cinema 4.