Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank (2014) is an altogether different incarnation of the character that a British audience may already be familiar with. Gone is the helium voice and wacky comedic persona of his late night TV show and instead presented here is a sombre, intense artist who just happens to be called Frank and have a large spheroidal head on his shoulders, identical to that of his Sidebottomed brethren. Domhnall Gleeson stars as Jon, a young and hopeless wannabe musician who stumbles into an avant-garde pop band after witnessing their keyboard player attempt to drown himself in the sea. With no practice nor idea of the set-list, Jon joins the band onstage. It is there that he is introduced to Frank (Michael Fassbender) for the first time, albeit briefly before things go awry and he returns to the humdrum 9 to 5 existence he has grown begrudgingly accustomed to.
Jon is unexpectedly invited to join the band once more and unknowingly finds himself at the heart of a forest retreat where his incongruous bandmates intend to record their experimental album amidst personality clashes, sexual encounters and a surprise suicide. Bandmates come accompanied with complexities. Don (Scoot McNairy) has a bizarre debilitating fetish and Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has an unmanageable and aggressive temper problem, yet all of the band members are united in their adoration of their talented and mesmerising front-man. After building up a following via social media and YouTube videos, Jon manages to get the band a prolific booking at an American music festival but is the band ready to perform their unique sound publicly and will Frank’s already unfeasibly large head be able to cope with a growing ego?
Based on the memoir by Jon Ronson (The Men Who Stare At Goats) who collaborates here with screenwriter Peter Straughen (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), the film is a fictional story that’s loosely inspired by the persona of musician and cult comedian Chris Sievey, who died age 54 in 2010 and the creative process of alternative musicians such as Daniel Johnston and Captain Beefheart. The film explores the line between art, creative freedom and a hunger for popularity. It’s all comically told from the perspective of Jon whose internal monologue narrates events as they unfold to hilarious effect. Intelligently, the writers brought forward Frank’s story in order to combine it with the digital age, so as the film progresses so does Jon’s steady online popularity, via Twitter feed and Tumblr updates as they appear on screen. The inclusion of social media ties in well with Frank’s absence of facial expression, his dissociative emotions are expressed via verbal emoticons, brief explanations of what his face is up to under the mask. Basically, Frank is LOL personified, played masterfully by Michael Fassbender, in a performance which manages to emanate beyond the mask, exuding the perfect measure of vulnerability and charisma through body language.
Fassbender is joined by a Rock 'n Roll ensemble cast. Both McNairy and Maggie Gyllenhaal, (who, after her performance in The Honourable Woman, has become a firm favourite) have plenty of meat on their supporting roles and come armed with baggage that makes them dually hilarious and somewhat terrifying. Gleeson, who bares a striking resemblance to Flight Of The Conchords’ Rhys Darby, both in appearance and comic performance, acts as the ambitious protagonist, a new age man, armed with social-media knowhow and grouped with a gang of avant-garde, punk traditionalists. It’s easy to empathise with his ambitious drive as he attempts to coax the uncompromising musicians towards an audience. In all, the film is a wholeheartedly entertaining fragment of madness, that will leave you with “smiley face” and is accompanied by a beautifully cacophonous soundtrack that sounds like a My Bloody Valentine and Joy Division mash-up. Although largely unrelated to what you think you know of Frank Sidebottom, this is a wonderful exploration of artistry and creativity and the scene in which the titular character is unmasked is a quietly heartbreaking tribute to the death of an enigma.
Frank is released on Blu Ray and DVD on September 15th