What happens when a wannabe musician finds himself caught up in a band that’s a cross between a commune and a boot camp, led by an unstable avant-garde musical genius, Frank, who never takes off a giant papier-mâché head?
The Paper Boyby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Quirky and original Frank starts with an attempted suicide by drowning and the emergency beachfront sectioning of a member of Frank’s band. That’s how naïve wannabe musician Jon serendipitously – just by being there watching it from the prom – gets what he thinks is the opportunity of a lifetime as the replacement for the keyboard player with (the unpronounceable) The Soronprfbs, the most bizarre, cacophonous avant-garde band he – or anyone in his quiet seaside town, or maybe anywhere – has ever seen. They are led by Frank Sidebottom, performer, singer and creative genius, who hides himself permanently inside a large papier-mâché fake head, with crudely painted cartoon features.
Journalist and author Jon Ronson (The Men Who Stare At Goats) in real life actually did play keyboards for a while with Frank Sidebottom’s band in the late ’80s and his screenplay Frank (with Peter Straughan) is a fiction based loosely on his memoir, transforming Frank, or rather his creator, cult musician and comedy legend Chris Sievey, from Northern eccentric to American psychiatric victim.
Fictional Jon’s voiceover in the film is a masterpiece of comic irony. He clings to an idea of himself that is comically at odds with the person we see. Failing to see how lacking in genuine talent he is himself, he falls under the spell of the alternative, more exciting, family that is this US band, is scooped up by them part way through their tour of Britain, and, hopelessly out of his depth, goes on to live with them for a year in their remote log-cabin commune in rural Ireland as Frank tries to reinvent music – unplayably and unlistenable to – for their album, with a new scheme of notation and new instruments. Frank’s huge fake head becomes a kind of blank canvas on which Jon can project his clichéd ideas of what creativity is all about. For a small-town boy like the film’s Jon, the extreme experience is intense, overwhelming and beyond his wildest dreams. So in love with it is he that when the commune inevitably runs out of money, he uses his nest egg to bail them out and buy food so they can keep their unpredictable creative momentum going.
But his brush with the extraordinary gives Jon the ambition to enter into a world of fame that the band itself never dreamed of – or even wanted. After a misguided secret online publicity campaign, uploading videos to YouTube, he gets them a booking at the famous SXSW festival in America, a public performance for which the band is monumentally unsuited and unprepared, and with which Frank’s fragile mental state cannot cope. Frank runs away from the gig and Jon realises that he has destroyed the band, ruined everything and prematurely put an end to the thing he loved. In an attempt to make amends, he tracks Frank down to the small town where he has gone back to live with his parents, only to find it is an ordinary home very like the one he himself left behind in England. For the first time he sees Frank without his papier-mâché head – he had even kept it on in the shower. He sees how childlike, vulnerable and complex he is, and how that was hidden by the head. Realising that Frank’s unclassifiable creative genius is something he can never be a part of – he will never ‘get inside that head inside that head’ – he reunites him with the surviving members of his band.
Michael Fassbender as Frank is extraordinary. Even with the head on for most of the film, so that we can’t see his facial expressions and with his voice slightly muffled, through his movements, posture and gestures he manages to convey Frank’s emotions – although in one understated comic scene Frank decides to irritate the band by giving a verbal running commentary describing his facial expressions that they can’t see. Maggie Gyllenhaal clearly enjoys her role of band member Clara, Frank’s ferocious part caretaker, part jailer, who struggles with Jon for control of Frank. Domhnall Gleeson is beautifully clueless as Jon. Director Lenny Abrahamson (What Richard Did) creates a well shot and witty mixture of surreal black comedy, physical humour and pathos. The real Frank Sidebottom first reared his papier-mâché head on film as an object of comic sexual fantasy, the video accompaniment to manic detective James McAvoy’s dirty phone calls in 2013’s Filth, the film of Irving Welsh’s book. You could say, like London buses, you wait ages for a Frank Sidebottom to turn up and then two come along at once.
Frank made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival and premiered in the UK at Sundance London. It is released on 9th May 2014 in the UK