It was Filth (2013) that introduced me to “Frank Sidebottom,” a character created by UK performance artist Chris Sievey in the 1980s. Frank—who had a rigid, oversized, false head with literally cartoonish features—was a would-be “celebrity” TV presenter and singer from Manchester. As Sidebottom, Sievey made recordings and hosted television shows until his death in 2010. Filth features some video clips of Frank’s work, without explanation—although he’s a cult figure in the UK, I had no clue that these surreal appearances were actual broadcasts, until I did a bit of post-screening research.
Frank borrows only the first name, the false-head, and—to an extent—the concept of “Frank” as a singer, from Sievey’s character. The rest of the story is completely new and bears no relation to Frank Sidebottom’s personality, shtick, or “real” life history, which may have initially dismayed some fans who might’ve been expecting (or fearing) a biopic. However, for everyone else, Frank can be enjoyed as an effective comedy-drama that touches on topics such as the nature of creativity, celebrity, and friendship. And if it piques viewers’ curiosity about the “real” Frank Sidebottom, whose work can be sampled on YouTube, then that’d be a bonus.
Jon (Domhnall Gleeson, one of the sons of Brendan) is an aspiring composer who by day works in a cubicle, doing something boring on a computer (that narrows it down, doesn’t it?). One day he spots the police rescuing someone trying to commit suicide in the surf, and is casually invited to take the man’s place as keyboardist for the band “Soronprfbs,” led by the mask-wearing Frank (Michael Fassbender). The gig doesn’t go well, but Jon later receives a call from manager Don, who invites him to Ireland. Jon discovers he’s not merely filling in for a weekend engagement, but that Frank, Don, guitarist Baraque, drummer Nana, and theremin-player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) are going to stay in a rented house there until they’ve completed their new album.
Desirous of becoming a professional musician, Jon agrees to participate, even financing the band’s extended stay with his own money. He documents their progress via social media. Frank, who never removes his mask, is an eccentric perfectionist, and months go by. The album is finally complete, but it’s Jon’s YouTube videos and Tweets that earn the band an invitation to the SXSW festival in the USA. Clara, protective of Frank and hostile to Jon, objects, but Frank is enthralled that people want to hear his music, and Soronprfbs crosses the pond.
SXSW doesn’t turn out as expected. There are arguments, a stabbing, several people hit by cars, on-stage collapses, an arrest—and that’s just events involving the band members! Frank, which has been (mostly) comedic prior to this point, gets semi-serious in the final section but manages to end on a high note, never fear.
One interesting aspect of Frank is its view of musical creativity. Frank’s music is beyond avant-garde—densely-layered noise, ambient sound, repetitive vocals, with the occasional recognisable melodic phrase. Even “Frank’s Most Likeable Song,” played in response to Jon’s frantic attempt to change the band’s direction at SXSW, is hilariously off-putting. And yet Frank’s drive and dedication are obvious, and Clara, Don, Baraque, and Nina have apparently bought in to his vision. Even Jon, after weeks of close collaboration while isolated with Frank and the others in the Irish countryside, finds his own creativity restimulated (although he’s hurt that his pop-influenced tunes find no favour with the others). Late in the film, Jon tries to ascertain if some trauma in Frank’s youth “caused” his musical genius, but learns Frank’s eccentricity (or, to be more accurate, his diagnosed mental illness) probably hampered his development, if anything. There’s no easy answer—“normal” Jon is talented enough but can’t get beyond snatches of mundane songs like “Woman in a Red Coat,” while Frank’s separation from reality has pushed his music beyond the realm of public acceptability.
As noted earlier, Jon blogs about his experiences with Frank and the band, and it is his social media promotion that eventually earns them an invitation to SXSW. Frank and the others believe they have a coterie of fans waiting to see them perform, only to learn that “23 thousand hits on YouTube is nothing,” and there might be “one or two” people in the audience who’ve heard of them. This is amusing although it’s difficult to believe Jon—depicted as a savvy user of YouTube, Twitter, etc.—would not have known this. [Also, while the social media aspect of Frank is appropriate and more or less realistically utilised—although I must say the wi-fi signal in rural Ireland seems suspiciously pervasive—I cannot help but feel this will feel a bit “quaint” in a few years, when all social media has been replaced by telepathic brain-slugs.]
Primarily a comedy, Frank takes an ambivalent stance on mental illness, mocking it at times and portraying it with taste and sympathy at others. Frank is obviously more than simply “odd,” he’s spent time in a mental hospital (in fact, that is where Don originally met him!). He refuses to remove his fiber-glass head (“I have a certificate!” he says to the authorities when crossing national borders) even in private, indicating it’s not simply a part of his stage persona. [This is in contrast to “Frank Sidebottom,” a fictional character portrayed by Chris Sievey.] Although Frank is articulate and even charming at times, he is also portrayed as volatile and unstable, traits which are exacerbated when the band arrives at SXSW.
As mentioned, the band’s manager Don also spent time in psychiatric care—he was sexually attracted to mannequins—and although this is played off as a joke, Don himself eventually succumbs to his own demons. Jon’s presence in the band is the result of a suicide attempt by the former keyboard player, and at one point Jon tells Clara “I assumed you were mentally ill,” as if this was practically a prerequisite for membership in Frank’s group (to be fair, Baraque and Anna appear more or less normal—for avant-garde musicians, at least).
The loyalty of Frank’s band members, despite his extreme eccentricities, is never fully explained. Have they all subscribed to his outlandish theories about music? Are they enthralled by his engaging personality? Do they care about him personally? The latter would seem to apply to Clara, who, although she enthusiastically participates in the music, seems indifferent to fame and seeks chiefly to protect Frank. Jon, the outsider, is caught up in the creative process and sees Frank’s band as a pathway to personal fulfillment. In the end, however, he proves to be a disruptive influence—forcing Frank and the others to break out of their isolation and confront the real (music) world, with tragic results. At this point, he finally understands that friendship is more important than fame and fortune…
Frank is an Irish film, directed by an Irish director (Lenny Abrahamson) and largely filmed in Ireland, but the movie, unlike a picture such as Calvary, doesn’t advertise its Irishness. Frank, Don, and Clara are presumably Yanks (Frank and Don, definitely so), Jon is British, and Baraque is French (possibly Anna as well, although she could be British or even American), so there are no true Irish characters. The Irish setting is a rural house, which could be located anywhere, and the last third of the film takes place in the USA (Texas and Kansas). This isn’t a criticism: Calvary is about Ireland and the Irish people, while Frank is not.
The performances in Frank are all quite fine. Michael Fassbender only gets about 10 minutes of actual face-time, but he’s still very affecting as Frank throughout (sounding a bit like Bill Murray at times, excellent American accent). Domhnall Gleeson, despite occasionally (and unfortunately) slightly resembling Andy Dick (facially), is likeable as Jon, who serves as the audience’s surrogate, observing and commenting on Frank and his weird mob. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Scoot McNairy do fine work, and although François Civil and Carla Azar have less to do, they also contribute meaningfully to the picture. Production values are fine. The direction and script are spot-on, with no significant slow spots.
Frank is very funny (sometimes blackly so) for the first hour or so—alternating absurdist, situational, verbal, and physical humour—then turns more serious (with plenty of humour still present—the film doesn’t get grim, no fear) in the final section. It’s well crafted and really very good. Recommended.
[Note: I also saw The November Man. It was…alright, but it contains almost nothing I feel like writing about. So I didn’t!]