If Van Gogh had picked up an acoustic guitar, he’d be Frank.
Frank, directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Opens tomorrow at Kendall Square cinema and other screens around New England.
By Gerald Peary
The tiny bit of footage available on You Tube of the British rocker, Chris Sievey, who died in 2010, suggests a minor talent of the 1980s, a wispy singer like plenty of others. But when, starting in 1985, Sievey ducked under a blue-eyed papier-mâché head and became his crude, loud-mouthed persona, Frank Sidebottom, a miracle happened. This Dadaist creation, much like one of Andy Kauffmann’s bizarre alternate identities, took over Sievey’s life. Sidebottom became wildly popular, appeared on TV talk shows, and headed the weirdo Oh Blimey Big Band, more heralded by far than any ensemble featuring the real Chris Sievey. At one point, Jon Ronson joined the Oh Blimey group as a keyboardist. He’s the co-screenwriter of the wonderfully idiosyncratic Frank, in which the eponymous rock singer, who stays hidden under his beach ball head, is Ronson’s homage to Sidebottom and Sievey, but also, Ronson has said, to Captain Beefheart and Daniel Johnson, other prime misfits.
In fact, Frank (Michael Fassbender, effectively deranged) is all screwed-up artists in one unhappy body. If Van Gogh had picked up an acoustic guitar, he’d be Frank. Sylvia Plath could have fit in Frank’s angry, anti-social band with the intentionally unpronounceable name, Soronprfbs.
Frank is an Irish feature made by a talented Gaelic director, Lenny Abrahamson. It starts in Dublin with the film’s actual protagonist, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson, Brendon’s actor son), the seemingly sane and rational person to whom we relate. He’s our guide into the madhouse world of Frank and Soronprfbs. Jon’s a middle-class Dubliner who lives at home with his parents, has a boring desk job in an anonymous company, and, of course, pines for more. At home, he dabbles on a keyboard, writing rock songs with no hope that they’ll be performed. But one day, fate intervenes. Jon is standing by a beach, where the police have rescued a suicide and are hauling him by ambulance to have his stomach pumped. He’s Soronprfb’s death-trip keyboardist, and Jon is picked up on the spot to replace him.
Soronprfb, with Jon in tow, head to the countryside to labor on a first album. Is it their Music from Big Pink? Not exactly. For a year, they putter about on odd instruments, including Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) sitting in on Theremin. Frank, singing through his enlarged head, contributes a string of nutty, morose lyrics. Nothing is going anywhere, and most of the paranoid band is hostile to Jon, the straight outsider. Clara, who might be Frank’s lover, especially despises him. But Jon perseveres. He believes there’s something about this band that can go big-time. Even when they reject doing his own saccharine tunes, which sound like jingles ripping off Lennon-McCartney. Secretly, he Tweets about them, and puts video clips up on You Tube. Social media success: Soronprfb is invited to perform at SXSW.
The second part of Frank isn’t as good as the first, beginning with the annoyance that the supposed scenes at the SXSW Music Fest are barely shot in Austin. Inexplicably, New Mexico stands in. Why? Better tax breaks? But the story also falters when the band falls apart, faced with the impossible pressure of performing before demanding audiences. The “Texas” episodes are depressing, but not particularily credible.
SPOILER ALERT: The last scene of Frank saves the day, hallelujah, as the band comes together again in a Mexican dive bar where no one listens to them, and with an unmasked Frank on vocals, though, don’t worry, he’s no happier than before. And he’s singing another eerie, incommunicative song. “They are, in fact, crazy,” director Abrahamson has said, with affection, about the outsider ensemble appropriately called Soronpfrb. And Abrahamson adores the fragile Frank: ”Frank really loves sound, he loves music, he’s exploring in a very sweet and unpretentious way. It’s better than some guy in leather trousers and tattoos prancing about the stage being dangerous.”
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.