What’s It About? Frank carves inspiration from a range of sources, predominantly being the late eccentric Chris Sievey, who was the brainchild behind papier-mâché headed Frank Sidebottom. Yet, bar certain elements, this is no biographic account of the Northern English comedian. Director Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank is entirely different, an American creation – fans of Chris Sievey should not expect to see anything more than an on-screen tribute. Jon Ronson (screenplay) had a brief part as a keyboardist in Chris Sievey’s band The Freshies, and perhaps his musical experiences seep into the film, but assume realities are few and far between.
Frank begins in an English seaside town, with actor Domhnall Gleeson taking on the role of Jon Ronson. Gleeson’s character, Jon Burroughs, is an office boy, stammering into the phone and tapping repetitively into the computer. After work, though, Jon aspires for musical success, shuffling around his suburban town, composing lyrics and inventing melodies. Burroughs’ early musical endeavours prove endearing and quite funny even, reminding audiences of their own pavement thoughts. Yet it soon materialises that the freckled twenty-something’s musical ability is misleading – his lyrics are awful and songs copycatted from renowned artists.
Frank lurches forward when Jon is offered an opportunity to sit in as a keyboard player for touring band Soronprfbs – no, we can’t pronounce it either. The band is loud, avant-garde and synth, fronted by unique quirk Frank (Michael Fassbender) and supported by Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Baraque (François Civil) and a nameless drummer (Carla Azar). The opening gig is hardly a success but showcases the beguiling talents of the band, and Burroughs joins Soronprfbs on the road. The road to stardom turns out to be an idyllic cabin in Ireland where manager Don (Scoot McNairy) has booked a month’s worth of isolation in order to record the anticipated first album. Jon’s musical talents are put to the test, but fail miserably, much to the derision of his fellow band members – except for Frank who apparently detects a suppressed creative flame. A month turns into several and carrot-haired Jon, soon feral and bearded, proves more useful when it comes to financial support and digital promotion.
Verdict? It is laugh-out-loud, quirky and inventive. And Michael Fassbender, who exposed all in Shame, physically and emotionally, is veiled and expressionless in this title. He may be hiding in an irking papier-mâché head, but Fassbender still flaunts mesmeric thespian abilities in a performance that is charismatic and soulful. There’s a magical energy in Frank and the bandleader coaches his musical flock to find their creative embers via exhaustive group exercise, repetitive music practice and the development of new-fangled instruments. This startling, bohemian creativity in Soronprfbs functions as an inspirational force of artistic expression.
Jon Ronson is initially likable and easy to empathise with – find creative strength; leave mundane job; become a musician. However when the Soronprfbs arrive in the desolate Irish forest to record an album, the talentless keyboardist causes anarchy and grows to be the ugly weed in a beautiful rose garden, causing fellow band mates to erupt in anger at his tuneless and stunted creative input. Clara, in particular, possesses a carnal hatred of Ronson as the duo battle for Frank’s affections. Gyllenhaal’s performance flawlessly exemplifies the alternative, and frightens during her negative episodes. The audience certainly feel that Ronson has been dealt with harshly – perhaps Frank is right and the keyboardist does have a talent to express. But as the film progresses, Ronson’s inadequacies prevail and his presence is more than just a hindrance to Soronprfbs.
Unknown to his idiosyncratic band members, Ronson has been filming Soronprfbs, capturing the enigmatic, the peculiar, and uploading clips to Twitter and YouTube. The unknowns soon develop a large digital following and Ronson, from a cynic’s perspective, is society’s warped compass – a character clucking for fame, shamelessly sniffing his populist nose for celebrity and gold. Ronson’s character is a dig at the X-Factors, an incarnation of one-minute fame, popularity and consumerism. Everything the Soronprfbs stand against. Yet Ronson woos Frank with these grand assertions of recognition and celebrity, booking Soronprfbs on to SXSW Festival – a big rock gig in Austin, Texas.
Finally on the road, Soronprfbs touch the cusp of greatness – but an iconic scene where Ronson orders Frank to produce “his most popular song” deals a disastrous blow for the band. Populist music proves fatal and their individual greatness is buried. This fabulous indie movie haunts and enthralls in the closing scenes, depicting the disastrous impact that Ronson has had on a group of untamed eccentrics.
Final Words: As music zings from electric sockets, Michael Fassbender and Maggie Gyllenhaal compel in this seductive chronicle of pop star mythology.
Frank is in UK cinemas on 9 May 2014.