Frank, Lenny Abrahamson (2014)


Frank is an incredibly interesting, unique, and quirky little film, but also one with schizophrenic ambitions that never really works as a whole, yet has occasional moments of pure brilliance.  I don’t believe that I can really explain how or why without going into a good deal of the backstory behind the film as well as what happens in the movie (I’d be hard-pressed to call it plot), so please be aware that SPOILERS ABOUND.  This is rare for me, as I usually try very hard to avoid posting spoilers, so remember if you decide to keep reading, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

So… for those of you who aren’t from Timperley in the UK, or weren’t aware of local personality Frank Sidebottom, who peaked in the early 1990’s with a British television show called Frank Sidebottom’s Fantastic Shed Show that plays like a low-rent version of Pee Wee’s Playhouse, the character of Frank Sidebottom was conceived and portrayed by Timperley local and musician/comedian Chris Sievey.  Chris had some success on his own with a band called The Freshies in the 1970’s and early 80’s, but in the mid-80’s started wearing a paper-mache head and shooting homemade videos and conducting local tours around Timperley as his strange alter-ego.  As the years went on, the paper-mache head was replaced with a stronger and more resilient fiberglass one.  Frank Sidebottom fronted several different band incarnations over the years, played local gigs and tours, landed spots on British television shows, and ultimate got his own Fantastic Shed Show and was revered in Timperley as a beloved personality and local cult hero.  He appeared quite a bit on Channel 4, and had a recurring bit called Frank’s Fantastic Question on the British iteration of MTV’s pop culture game show Remote Control.  His bands performed covers of songs like Anarchy in the UK and Born in the USA, but with the lyrics altered to Anarchy in Timperley and Born in Timperley. Sometimes at his gigs Frank performed with a hand puppet called Little Frank that looked like a smaller, identical version of himself. Sievey did fairly well for himself, but also spent what he made, and died bankrupt in June 2010 from throat cancer, without enough savings even for a funeral.

Jon Ronson, who had been a keyboardist in Frank’s band in the early 90’s when it was called Frank Sidebottom’s Oh Blimey Big Band, had been working on a script for a feature film version of Frank’s story when Sievey passed in 2010.  He found out about Sievey’s financial state when he heard reports that Sievey was to receive a pauper’s funeral, and took to social media, fundraising enough several times over within a matter of hours to pay for a proper burial.  Interestingly enough, the story took Ronson by surprise because although he had been working on the script for several years at that point, he hadn’t actually talked with Sievey in quite some time.  Initially he thought the reports of Sidebottom’s death simply meant that Sievey had retired the character.

The script for the film had never been intended as a straight bio-pic of Chris Sievey, or even of his years as Frank Sidebottom.  And Frank’s story is one that gets stranger and stranger the more you peel back the layers of the onion. Sievey wore the Frank head not just during the gigs, but backstage as well, and often while traveling around under the guise of Frank.  No one knew who Frank Sidebottom was except those in Sievey’s inner circle, and to the general public, Frank’s true identity remained a mystery. Sievey would not respond to being called anything other than Frank when he had the head on.  The character of Frank Sidebottom was always incredibly positive, increasingly so whenever bad things were happening in Sievey’s life.  Sievey even went so far as to wear a clip over his nose while wearing the head to achieve the very nasal tone of Frank Sidebottom’s voice, and often he wore the head so long that his nose would become indented and disfigured by the clip.  There was such a divide between the personalities of Frank Sidebottom and Chris Sievey that it seems as though there may have even been some schizophrenia or mental illness at play.  And in fact, when Ronson initially approached Sievey with the idea of building a script around him, Sievey loved the idea but then grew more fearful and hesitant when it seemed as though a movie about Frank might also have to address the psychology of the man behind the mask. That was when Ronson concocted the idea that the script not be a bio-pic, but rather a fictional character study about Frank pulled from the mythology that Sievey had created.  And this is ultimately, where the film Frank has its problems, because while this may have been the intention, the completed script doesn’t feel like a single intention had ever been settled upon.

The names of the characters in the script remain the same: Frank is Frank and Domhnall Gleeson plays the role of Jon, and early events in the film are pulled wholesale from Ronson’s early experiences in the band.  That includes how he was hired as a substitute keyboardist on the day of a gig when he didn’t know how to play any of the band’s songs, and his first experience meeting Frank while he already had the head on, and Sievey not responding to anything other than the name Frank.  In fact, the film is set up early on as the story of protagonist Jon.  We see him suffering at his bland, tired day job, trying to find inspiration and create songs as he walks about town, but not having much success with it.  I’ve read other reviews claiming that Jon isn’t very talented, and that the film is ultimately about the struggle between an untalented musician with drive and a talented band with no ambition, but that seems to me to not only be a very oversimplified description of the story, but also fairly inaccurate.  I wouldn’t say that Jon is untalented as a musician, simply that he hasn’t yet found his voice.  He’s obviously great at identifying good music, and has grown up on the tunes of the 80’s and 90’s and is something of a pop scholar.  He absolutely knows what good music is, and he has a savvy and ambition that many of Frank’s band members may not, but he lacks confidence and the discovery of himself to be able to create.  I have a hard time qualifying the band members as talented musicians, and I’ll get back to more on this later.

The first three-quarters of the film follow Jon’s story, and Frank is really just a supporting character amidst all of the madness.  After agreeing to play a gig last-minute without knowing any of the songs, and then being offered a full-time spot in the band after the band’s regular keyboardist doesn’t mentally recover from a suicide attempt, Jon finds himself indefinitely holed up with the band in a rural cottage to write and record the band’s next album.  As it turns out, the band members are all quirky to the point of being superficially insane.  The drummer and lead guitarist are French and hardly speak any English (and get very little screen time); Scoot McNairy plays the band’s manager and ex-keyboardist Don (the keyboardist previous to the suicidal keyboardist, which begs the question why he couldn’t have simply taken over during the initial gig) with a fetish for mannequin sex; Maggie Gyllenhaal is the highly strung and controlling Clara and plays all manner of odds and ends including the theremin; and Frank is, well… Frank. Jon bonds with Don early on as the only person in the band besides Frank that can and will speak to him, and Don is Jon’s first window into the band and their strange interpersonal politics. Frank is obsessed with not just music but sound, and creating things that have never really been heard before.  In one of the film’s more brilliant moments, Frank spontaneously creates a beautiful and poetic song about a loose thread on a rug. Eventually Jon develops a growing friendship with Frank, which seems to threaten the delicate balance of the group.  The French don’t like Jon and their allegiance lies with Clara, who sees Jon as a threat to Frank’s well-being.  Clara has some kind of a pseudo-romantic/emotional relationship with Frank, and she’s often the person he turns to when he can’t cope with the outside world.  Jon is frustrated by the madness he sees all around him, which includes a lack of cohesion and the band’s inability to write anything that could possibly be considered mainstream pop.  And while Jon knows he has a lot of growing to do to become the musician he wants to be, he also wants to have a sustainable career.  He tweets about his time working on the new album and secretly posts youtube videos, which often feature creative and nervous breakdowns more than they do actual songwriting sessions.  But he begins to develop a bit of a following, and eventually shares the band’s secret growing success with Frank. Frank latches onto the possibility that their music may actually finally be appreciated, which worries Clara, who sees where this may all be going.  Jon manages to book them a gig at SXSW that leads into a road trip, the dissolution of the band, and Frank losing his head, having a breakdown, and disappearing.

The final 20 minutes or so of the film involve Jon tracking down Frank and seeing him, for the first time, without his head.  His forehead has scars and he’s missing hair in a line around his head, presumably from the brace inside Frank’s fiberglass noggin, bearing echoes of the disfiguration of Chris Sievey’s nose from his nose clips.  And this is where the film does a huge pivot.  The best parts of the movie up until this point are the occasional inspired bits of manic genius on the part of Frank… like his song about the tuft of rug, or a jingle he calls his “most likable song ever.”  And Fassbender is amazing in the role.  His voice isn’t the nasal tone of the real Frank Sidebottom, but rather an overly-positive dulcet American baritone.  And when he sings, he sounds a lot like Jim Morrison.  Fassbender is very aware of the performance limitations of the giant fiberglass head, which looks a lot like Davey of the Christian-themed Davey & Goliath claymation/puppet segment broadcast during educational programming on Sunday mornings in America in the 70’s.  So Fassbender really utilizes the elements he has left– physicality, body language, and voice.  And it’s an iconic, amazing performance.  Some of the best bits also include his conversations with Jon, as when he explains why he wears the mask and his aversion to human faces, and there’s some great dialogue in these moments.  But for so much of the first three-fourths of the film, I wanted more Frank.  I wanted more of these conversations, and more of an exploration of Frank.  And I couldn’t have cared less about the band’s story or their chaotic, quirky fights and affected breakdowns that occupied most of the film’s running time.  So much of that storyline, along with the recording of the album and the road trip to SXSW, just felt tired, familiar, and cliche, and cobbled together from other uninteresting indie movies.

Scoot McNairy is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors, but his role in the film was problematic.  His character isn’t developed enough for him to become as fascinating as he could have been, and he disappears part-way through the movie.  I felt like we either needed more or less of him, but the balance that was achieved just didn’t quite work for me.  Domhnall Gleeson is a fantastic actor, so likable and open and vulnerable and accessible, and he really anchors much of the journey of the film.  But the character he’s given to play is ultimately thin with not enough going on in his own right, and the film eventually sort of jettisons the importance of Jon as the protagonist and narrator.  He’s the audience’s initial window into the world of Frank, but by the end of the film, just a catalyst character and plot device.  And Maggie Gyllenhaal, well, I can’t stand her in general.  I suppose that sort of works for parts of Frank, but I don’t really understand her appeal and I would have preferred almost any other actress in the role.  While her character is meant to be abrasive, she also has a loving connection with Frank, and is really the only person in the world that can hold him together and pull him back from the edge. And because Maggie Gyllenhaal was playing the role, that element of Frank just didn’t work for me.

But beyond my personal quibbles is the problematic ending, undeniably brilliant in its own right.  It features Jon driving the near-catatonic and now-maskless Frank back to Texas, where Clara and the French drummer and guitarist are the new house band in an almost-always empty bar.  Without his fiberglass head, Frank is far gone, almost to the point of no return.  He’s always been incredibly musically talented, but he’s also afflicted with some form of mental illness, and it was the head that allowed him to function socially.  Yet when he hears the music from the stage, he tries to connect and not emotionally evade what’s going within himself, and he begins creating lyrics and singing “Put your arms around me, fiddley digits, itchy britches… I love you all.”  It’s an incredible moment from Fassbender.  The song itself works in ways that songs rarely do, the performance and moment are transcendent, and they really capture the truth behind a person’s inability to connect or communicate with others, particularly creative savants.  It’s the kind of moment and song that will make you walk out of the theatre glad to be alive and appreciating all of humanity, and that’s a rare thing in movies today.

And yet… it really calls into question the point of the film, and why so much of it was a trite and predictable movie about Jon joining Frank’s band and creating an album in the countryside and the road trip to SXSW.  Ultimately, in the last 20 minutes, the film became the very thing that Chris Sievey had been so nervous about and didn’t want… an exploration behind the mask and a glimpse of mental illness.  That’s certainly the most important part of the movie, and probably the only part of it that actually has something to say behind it.  So if Ronson eventually goes there anyway, why tap dance around it for three fourths of the film and couch the movie as a quirky, indie film about a guy with a giant fiberglass head and his band?  And to get back to my previous point, while I think you can certainly call Frank a talented musician, I’m not sure the same can be said for Clara or the keyboardist or guitarist.  Clara is simply an oddball who holds Frank together, and the other two are simply competent musicians; but the film was never about the divide between ambition and talent.  It’s ultimately about communication.  And for Frank, music is communication… perhaps the only kind he’s capable of.  The character of Jon begins to understand this, and through his journey grows as a person and likely finds his own voice, but that journey isn’t so much about music as it is about humanity.  And certainly there’s a purity to Frank’s kind of musicality that may not be for the mass market, but ultimately that’s besides the point, and not really the story the film is telling. There’s a victory for Frank at the end of the film as he comes out from behind his mask and starts tiptoeing into the world relying purely on music to help him.

No, ultimately it would appear that Jon Ronson wanted to tell the world about the beauty of Chris Sievey, and of Frank, and of seeing and appreciating those that are often overlooked and misunderstood.  And the movie ends up really succeeding at that. But he takes such a long, roundabout way to get there, and he couches most of it in the framing of his own pseudo-biographical journey, and then places that within the framework of a narrative aiming to be something else entirely, that the film feels fractured and schizophrenic, and sadly less effective and entertaining than it could have been.  Perhaps it was simply a case of Ronson knowing on some level what he wanted to say with Frank, and then holding it in while writing the script out of deference to Sievey, until feeling he had to release it in the film’s few final scenes. But really, Frank would have fared so much better with more balance, and more Frank throughout, and less of the chaotic quirkiness of the supporting cast that Ronson likely focused on as a self-stalling technique.

Certainly the film is worth watching, and it’s almost a must-see for the final scene.  But there’s a lot of bland tediousness along the way to sit through, made palatable by performances from Fassbender, Gleeson, and McNairy.  I’ll leave you with the kind of scene I wish we’d seen a lot more of in Frank– because Ronson could have explored the character throughout with a light touch, instead of avoiding it as much as he does, and you can’t fault director Abrahamson for not shooting scenes that were never written.


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