‘Sometimes audiences applauded Frank; sometimes they threw stuff at him’

Though his head is encased in papier mache, Michael Fassbender is wondrously expressive in this biopic of Frank Sidebottom

10 May 2014

9:00 AM

10 May 2014

9:00 AM



Frank is a music biopic, but only of sorts, as it is not at all like your average music biopic. It’s not that processional march we have come to expect; that chronological story of tough beginnings, the moment of discovery, tour montages, calendar dates flying, and finally making it big. In fact, this is about a musician for whom making it big would be the death of him, and very nearly is. Also, it stars Michael Fassbender wearing bad knitwear and a giant paper-mâché head. So it is not Walk the Line or Dreamgirls or The Karen Carpenter Story, is what I’m saying, and it is profoundly more interesting and affecting for it.

This is based on a memoir by the journalist Jon Ronson (The Men Who Stare At Goats) who, as a writer, has made the marginalised his speciality and who, for a spell in the Eighties, played keyboard for Frank Sidebottom and his band. Frank sang about his hometown, Timperley, and Monopoly and football, and wore the big fake head. Sometimes audiences applauded Frank and sometimes they threw stuff at him, and he didn’t appear to mind which way it went. Frank was the alter ego of musician and comedian Chris Sievey, who would not answer to Chris, when he was being Frank, which he always was on stage, and for many hours off it. Ronson, together with writer Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; The Men Who Stare At Goats) and the director, Lenny Abrahamson, initially set out to make a straight film about Chris/Frank’s life but then decided to fictionalise it as a celebration of pop savants everywhere; of those who do what they do because that is who they are, and who — look away, if you are easily shocked — don’t give a fig about fame. (Captain Beefheart probably fits into this category, as did Syd Barrett.)

Scoot McNairy and Maggie Gyllenhaal

We are taken into Frank’s world via a character named Jon, as played by Domhnall Gleeson, a young actor who is going places so fast I may eventually have to forgive him for starring in Richard Curtis’s About Time. (Not yet, as it still feels rather raw; but maybe soon.) Jon lives with mum and dad in a seaside suburb and holds down a dull call centre-type job, but fancies himself a keyboard player and composer. His talent is sublimely mediocre, obvious to all but himself. He can only compose songs about what is directly under his nose. ‘Woman Walking Past With A Bag Over Her Shoulder’ might be one, for example. (Some of this is very funny, by the way.) Through a chance encounter on the beach, he is invited to join Frank’s band, with its tellingly unpronounceable name, Soronprfbs, and he travels with them to Ireland to make an album.

You may say: what a waste of Fassbender, not in the bad knitwear especially, but in that big fake head. And you would think so. But his performance, employing only voice and body, is wondrously expressive somehow. Frank has firm ideas about music. Frank invents a new musical scale and new musical instruments and effectively imprisons the band at their Wicklow property. But he is not a tyrant. He is kindly, actually, more like an innocent abroad, and is fiercely protected by Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the band’s timpanist. Clara is probably in love with Frank, while her hatred of Jon is vicious. Jon bleats about making the band’s music more ‘likeable’ and she is scared he is going to infect Frank with mediocrity. In the end, Jon arranges for them to perform in America, which ends well or doesn’t end well, depending on how you look at such things.

You will have to suspend a certain amount of disbelief. This Frank wears his head 24/7, even when sleeping and even in the shower, covered in polystyrene. So how does Frank clean his teeth, shave, have a hair cut, scratch his ear? How come he’s not made to take the head off when travelling through passport control? How come no one ever looks at Frank in the street? But these are niggles. Mostly, this is a tender, surreally gripping tribute to all those who don’t usually get a look-in, plus raises, I think, some serious questions about the way we medicalise those who can’t be easily categorised, labelling them ‘mentally ill’ when ‘different’ could cover it. So not like the usual music biopic, like I said, and profoundly the better for it.

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