Lenny Abrahamson’s biopic of British singer-songwriter Chris Sievey, whose alter ego was the papier-mâché head wearing Frank Sidebottom, is not the typical film you expect find in this genre. Instead of aiming for historical accuracy, screenwriter Jon Ronson, whose memoirs of playing in Sievey’s band is the basis of the film, takes a fictional approach to his time with Sievey. Unchained from the heavy shackles of being faithful to the source material, Ronson’s script is free to explore the desperations, passions and pretentions that come with artistic pursuits.
Struggling to find his footing as a musician, things begin to look up for Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) when he meets Don (Scoot McNairy), the manager of a band named “Soronprfbs”. It just so happens that his band is in need of a new keyboard player and Jon is the perfect candidate…well, he is the only one they could find on such short notice. Seeing the one-time gig as a chance to show off his talents, Jon discovers that his new bandmates are far more eccentric than he anticipated. The strangest of them all is Frank (Michael Fassbender), the lead singer and philosophical guru of the group.
Wearing a papier-mâché head everywhere he goes, even in the shower, Frank is both a riddle and a source of inspiration for Jon. Joining the band in Ireland to record an album, Jon soon realizes that not everyone is as fond of his presences as Frank is. Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in particular, Frank’s closest confident, sees him as a threat to everything Soronprfbs is working towards. When Jon’s videos of the band’s oddball recording sessions becomes a viral sensation, and the band is invited to play the illustrious South by Southwest festival, he finds himself with a great dilemma. Does he contiue his soul searching in hopes of reaching his full potential as a musician, or does he sacrifice the band’s artistic integrity for a chance at stardom?
Frank is a film that flirts with several tones but never truly commits to one. It is not serious enough to be a drama, and too quirky for a laugh out loud comedy. While this imbalance will no doubt infuriate some, in the context of the film, it actually adds to its offbeat charm. Though the majority of the characters are outcasts of whom, in Frank’s case at least, are of questionable mental state, Abraham’s manages to make them endearing rather than simply being the butt of the joke.
This is achieved mainly because Ronson writes himself as the unknowing villain of the piece. Jon, like the audience who he inadvertently represents, is incapable of truly understanding the minds of these creative geniuses. Instead of accepting this fact, he works hard to conform that which is odd into something that is more comfortable for him. This is why Jon is so easily blinded by the spotlight that fame represents. Popularity and acceptance is always more appealing than unappreciated brilliance. For all of Frank’s idiosyncratic traits, he actually comes off saner than Jon by comparison. Not an easy thing to achieve considering that the character is prone to verbalizing the facial expression he has under his papier-mâché dome.
Domhnall Gleeson deserves a lot of credit for keeping Frank interesting even in its sluggish moments. He is likeable enough to make us want to follow him through this eccentric journey, while spineless enough to make his actions in the latter half of the film believable. Though his face may be concealed for the most part, Michael Fassbender is amusing as the peculiar spiritual guru of the band. However, of the main characters in the film, it is Gyllenhaal’s hostile Clara who is the unlikely heart of the piece. Donning a Karen-O style bob, which is not that different from Frank’s in fact, Clara is the one character that we wish Ronson’s script had delved into further.
If there is one flaw to Frank’s execution it is that the film’s quirkiness will distract some from its main point. Frank is not about laughing at this collection of goofballs, but rather coming to terms with the fact that artistic brilliance comes in many forms. Instead of trying to change what we do not understand, or ripping it apart to build it back into something more aesthetically pleasing, we simply need to accept what is before us. Frank’s tone and pacing may be uneven at times but its flaws, like that of its characters, are what make it so delightfully charming.