By Matthew Sanders, film critic
This is not a music biopic like Ray or Amadeus. This is a fictionalised account of Jon Ronson’s former life with Frank Sidebottom and his erstwhile band. Frank Sidebottom was a creative genius and a cult figure created by the late Chris Sievey. He was legendary in his own circle, and although his music never made it into public popular culture his large papier-mâché head certainly did.
The story follows a struggling musician (Jon played by Dohmnall Gleeson) who is living an unsatisfied life of rudimentary office hours and beige. A chance encounter leads to an invitation to join the eccentric Soronprfbs with the aforementioned Frank. Jon’s innocence and willingness to enter Frank’s weird world allows him to escape suburbia and throws him into a nest of seemingly inept creativity.
The band is a rag tag of hipster clichés; Jon is in stark contrast against the prickly and occasionally violent Clara (Maggie Gyllenhall), a French pair of musicians are unsurprisingly aloof, and the keyboardist Don is teetering on the edge.
The film is driven forwards by Jon Ronson’s desire to become a musician and to write a great song. He sees in Frank an opportunity to achieve this, and to develop his own identity.
The film has a simple set up, split into two parts; the creation of a musical masterpiece and the tour.
The band relocates to a collection of small timber shacks in Northern England and use a variety of instruments and techniques to create pseudo-intellectual tunes. Jon attempts to discover himself whilst trying to integrate himself into the band. Frank is impenetrable, his behaviour is unpredictable and childish but he is the catalyst for the music.
The second half of the film transports the band to the Texan music festival SWSX. Here Jon’s relationship with Frank develops as the band disintegrates. It is here that we see the fragility of Frank as he is removed from the safety of isolation and his trusted circle.
Without due care Jon attempts to bring limelight to himself by publicising Frank via social media, he attempts to break Frank from his own musical direction to forward his own aspiration to produce popular music. Frank is pushed to be the edge and his fragility is exposed.
The film suffers from a mid-point dip as it tries to realign itself after it lands in SWSX. The focus shifts to the struggle between Jon and Frank and the new surroundings apply pressure that reveals the character behind the mask.
Michael Fassbender heartfelt portrayal is at the forefront of the film and you would have to have a heart of papier-mâché not to be affected by the final acts of the film. Dohmnall Gleeson perfectly captures the innocence of the naïve Jon, a man without purpose, trying to find one, but then realising he is just there for the ride.
The film directed by Lenny Abrahamson successfully portrays a fascinating character, and the disparate world that he lives in with those around him. The film doesn’t analyse or comment whether Frank is mentally ill, we take Frank at face value. The story is clearly written with a lot of affection and respect for Frank Sidebottom/Chris Sievey by Jon Ronson and his co-writer Peter Straughan. But it does feel like the filmmakers are holding back from creating a more focused film out of respect.
There is a lot to admire in Frank, and it is great to see a man who lived outside most people’s conciseness is brought to life. Frank is full of warmth and there is much to enjoy here beyond the usual indie crowd fodder.