Michael Fassbender plays the eponymous musical maverick in Lenny Abrahamson's touching tragicomedy
Biopics have always occupied a particular corner of the cinematic genre. They can be noble, serious, forensically constructed and extremely long.
There are good ones (Raging Bull), bad ones (J. Edgar) and downright ugly ones (Jobs). They are tricky, too. Even Michael Mann, perhaps the best pure cinema director alive, fumbled the task with Ali, a coldly distant study of boxing’s greatest showman.
Obscure, crazed and occasionally tender, Frank is nothing like any of these. In truth, it barely falls into the category marked ‘biopic’. Inspired by the bizarre career of the late Chris Sievey, director Lenny Abrahamson uses the musician’s life as a rough guide rather than a closely followed map. In doing so he crafts a film which is at once a strangely affecting road movie and a depiction of skewed genius.
As a struggling musician in the early 1980s, Sievey’s decision to abandon his band, The Freshies, and try something new gave birth to Frank Sidebottom. Sidebottom was an unsettlingly warped alter-ego defined by his sharp suits, broad Mancunian accent and giant Max Fleischer-inspired papier-mâché head.
Neither his music nor his comedy would bring him great wealth or acclaim, and he would die penniless in 2010. Yet, his creation – a grotesque, mildly subversive oddball – would secure him cult status and post-mortem cool.
If anything, the head is Abrahamson's truest link between reality and fiction. In the title role (the name Sidebottom never comes up) Michael Fassbender moves his accent away from Manchester and places it somewhere between Killarney and Kansas, the muffling effect of the permanent, enormous, blue-eyed cranium turning his rich voice into a clipped monotone.
Lithe and energetic, the German-born, Kerry-raised actor appears to have a great time eschewing his leading man credentials in favour of a faceless, unpredictable man-child, vacillating between grounded practicalities – ‘I have a certificate,’ he intones, when challenged over the mask – and the obsessive pursuit of sonic perfection.
Fassbender sits happily at the centre of an increasingly deranged creative process, observed, with genuine bewilderment, by Domhnall Gleeson’s meek keyboardist, Jon (a version of the musician turned journalist and author, Jon Ronson, on whose memoirs the film is loosely based).
Floating through a dull life in his bland middle-class seaside town, Jon is a listless musician and a bored worker drone whose initially pathetic tweets punctuate the screen throughout. He is keen then to grasp an early chance encounter with Frank and his awkwardly-monikered band, The Soronprfbs. Before long, Jon is relocating to a remote Irish island for the recording of this curious group’s new album.
Nothing is committed to tape until Frank is ready and to this end, with the aid of his inherited ‘nest egg’, Jon spends the next year in a verdant bedlam. More than a wide-eyed narrator, he emerges as a layered and quietly selfish antagonist, viewed with suspicious disdain by abrasive theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and with benign indifference by Frank himself.
The Soronprfbs’ music might charitably be described as surreal but the young man discerns inspiration beneath the din. Surreptitiously, he secures the band a place at Texas hipster circus South By Southwest, and it is at this stage that the wheels truly come off. Gone are the aimless days of charmed lunacy, for Jon’s misunderstanding of what makes Frank tick is as profound as the frontman is complex.
Whether or not the interloper is motivated by the desire to be rich and famous is unclear, but he is certainly not on the same page as everyone else. The Soronprfbs are an eclectic bunch but each of them is in thrall to Frank’s musical proclivities; critical recognition and success do not feature much in their collective thinking.
Where previously he was simply along for the ride, Jon takes control with disastrous results. By exploiting Frank’s vague desire to be ‘likeable’, he unwittingly stirs up the obvious mental illness that hovers over everything, a cloud which is, at first glance, amusing in a faintly obscene way. Frank and his good-natured manager, Don (a restrained Scoot McNairy) share more than just a fondness for random sounds.
Their personal demons – raw, unexplainable, unconnected to the clichéd darkness that Jon assumes to be their natural habitat – were containable in the isolated reverie of the island studio. In the focused scrutiny of the outside world, however, they break loose.
Frank never loses its light tone but little in the last reel is mined for laughs as Jon struggles to clean up after his clumsy excursion into treacherous waters. His fascination with the giant head borders on the morbid, and so it comes as a great surprise when, in the wake of his psychological tipping-point, Frank’s human features are there for all to see.
Robbed of his persona, he is a mere shell and, cleverly, Abrahamson shows a downcast Fassbender solely in profile until the end. Indeed, as the camera slowly works its way around to fully expose his gaunt visage, a returning sliver of confidence allows the real Frank to be properly recognised.
Frank runs at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast from until May 22.