REVIEW: FRANK / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: LENNY ABRAHAMSON / SCREENPLAY: JON RONSON, PETER STRAUGHAN / STARRING: DOMNHALL GLEESON, MICHAEL FASSBENDER, MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL, SCOOT MCNAIRY / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Frank Sidebottom was the surreal, two-headed (one inside the other) alter-ego of northern comic and singer Chris Sievey, who died in 2010 at the age of 54, apparently having given his blessing to this project. The film Frank is a wholly fictionalised account of an already fictional creation, co-written and based upon the articles of Jon Ronson, who had occasion to play in Sidebottom’s band. Anyone anticipating a biography of either Sievey or Sidebottom can check their expectations in at the door, because this is a film that takes place entirely in the neo-magical realist universe of Being John Malkovich.
Featuring an entirely new soundtrack of songs written by composer Stephen Rennicks in conjunction with director Lenny Abrahamson and the cast, and performed live as the cameras rolled, Frank resembles nothing so much as This is Spinal Tap by way of Adaptation., and shot in the naturalistic style and with much of the dreamlike pathos of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Fans of Frank Sidebottom might therefore wonder what there is to attract them here. The answer is in Ronson and Straughan’s screenplay, which dramatises Ronson’s relationship with Sievey’s cult creation in legitimately tangential ways.
The film is thus narrated by ‘Jon’, in the form of blog entries and Twitter updates, and commences with his rather odd introduction into the world of Soronprfbs, Frank’s band. Before he has time to adjust to this bizarre environment, Jon is whisked away to Ireland to begin recording on Soronprfbs’ new album, and so the story plays out detailing how Jon’s world of social media and material success encroaches upon the rarefied plane of Frank’s creativity.
The acting is low-key and brave, with Domnhall Gleeson the timidly charismatic lead, but it’s an astonishing and unrecognisable turn from Michael Fassbender as Frank that mesmerises. The amount of expression he brings to a simple twitch of a papier-mâché head is quite unnerving, and Maggie Gyllenhaal is equally impressive in the unflattering role of Soronprfbs’ thereminist. The dialogue and characterisations is a match for the ideas and performances, and Frank exists in a solidly built alternative reality in which a man who showers with a plastic bag over his head can seem completely normal.
In the final act, Abrahamson’s film risks falling apart as the meditations on mental illness and art-versus-success come to the fore, but they develop in such a natural fashion as to lead to an entirely appropriate and elliptical conclusion. This isn’t going to be a film that appeals to the masses, but anyone who has enjoyed the work of Charlie Kaufman will know exactly what to expect and, while this is neither homage nor plagiaristic, will not be disappointed.
Extras: commentaries, featurette, deleted scenes