REVIEW: FRANK / CERT:15 / DIRECTOR: LENNY ABRAHAMSON / SCREENPLAY: JON RONSON, PETER STRAUGHAN / STARRING: DOMHNALL GLEESON, MICHAEL FASSBENDER, MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL, SCOOT MCNAIRY /RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
While there are no spaceships, fantasy islands, bloody carnage or weird worlds, Frank earns its place within the confines of STARBURST by virtue of its cult appeal; and the fact that it's too damn good to ignore.
Frank is the fictionalised story of Jon (Gleeson), a wannabe songwriter/musician, working in a boring desk job, dreaming of leaving his seaside town that he calls home behind. He is thrown a lifeline when he steps in as keyboard player for a visiting band, Soronprfbs, when they lose theirs when he suffers a breakdown and attempts to drown himself. He's told to turn up at showtime, and is rather perplexed when lead singer, Frank (Fassbender), makes his way to the stage. Wearing a large fibreglass head, the enigmatic singer warbles indecipherable lyrics at a bemused audience, until the equipment used by Clara (Gyllenhaal) explodes. The gig is over, and Jon is left to carry on his mundane life. Until, that is, he gets a call to do a gig with the band in Ireland. He jumps at the chance, and with stars in his eyes, he heads off (groan...) in the hope of fame and adoration. He's naturally a little miffed when the 'gig' turns out to be the recording of an album, in a remote cabin. For however long it takes. He decides to post the progress of the band online, and Tweet his experience to his ever-increasing followers. This eventually leads to a shot at playing at the prestigious SXSW Festival, but this is also where his musical aspirations run the risk of derailing the group.
Despite the obvious visual reference and the ambition/delusion of the real Jon (Ronson, who wrote the books The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test), there is very little parallel to the story of much-loved Manchester musician/comedian Frank Sidebottom. He (and his creator, Chris Sievey) approved completely of Ronson's decision to base the film Frank not on the actual man but a mixture of several 'outsider' artists; most recognisably, Captain Beefheart (who allegedly took his band under duress to a secluded house to record their famous album, Trout Mask Replica) and, perhaps more accurately, Daniel Johnston, whose struggle with schizophrenia and manic depression hampered his career (a cover of his song, Worried Shoes appears in the Spike Jonze film, Where The Wild Things Are).
It's this association, and ultimate debunking of the idea that mental illness provides inspiration that gives the film with its heart, but also its tragedy. When he finds out from the bands manager, Don (McNairy), that both he and Frank had met in a mental institution (and his rather odd sexual preference) Jon, "wishes I had a mental illness". While this subject is handled at times with great humour, it's still never ridiculed or belittled. Indeed, the persona Frank has chosen for himself provides a unique outlet for his talent, even if he doesn't quite know what to do with it.
The entire cast are superb, especially Gleeson (who can only go on to bigger things, especially since being announced for Star Wars Episode VII), the film is seen through his social media-savvy eyes, complete with humdrum postings and hashtags. Fassbender, his famous good looks almost always under-seen, plays Frank as the innocent, troubled genius he actually is. Like the real-life Frank, he makes up for the lack of facial expressions (save for the hilariously spoken ones) by using his body to convey emotion. His finger behaviour - a mixture of Sievey's gestures and that of an autistic savant - are perfect, as is his over-exaggeration in his arm and body motions. He makes a character who should really be distant and opaque completely relatable, and likable. Which makes the climax even more heartbreakingly touching.
Director Abrahamson strikes the perfect balance between drama, comedy, and pathos; managing to ensure the it never panders to the hipster crowd by making these outsiders look cool or even ironic. This isn't a rags to riches story, it's about embracing who you are - no matter what foibles or hindrances you may have. As mentioned, it's a cult film through and through - not just in appeal, but also in understanding and accepting that being different is perfectly fine.
Expected Rating: 8 out of 10