In real life, Frank Sidebottom was a character created by British artist Chris Sievey, who performed live with a large, cartoonish papier-mache head on. His character was a bit Pee Wee Herman, singing in a reedy high register like he had a clothespin on his nose. The music was played on children’s instruments, but he covered major pop hits of the day — the mid-1980s through the ’90s. For those growing up in the UK during that time, he was an affectionate satirist, the music of working-class cul-de-sacs and corner newsagents, a contrast with the shiny business offices of the pop world.
However, in the fascinating and rather inspiring new movie “Frank,” we get a knowingly glamorized version of the story, but so far from the truth that it can hardly be called poetic license. Instead, director Lenny Abrahamson and writers Peter Straughan and former Sidebottom band member Jon Ronson have created a fantasy around the myth of the troubled genius. Behind his mask, Frank stands for all kinds of famous outside musicians, whose creativity gets tied into their mental illness. Yet it’s also a musing on the wonder of making music in a band, and in certain scenes the cast really captures that magic of when noodling turns into a song and a song turns into something transcendent. (The cast, apparently, really did jam and created the songs heard in the film, and it’s a thing of wonder that what comes out really does sound unlike anything I’ve heard before.)
Frank, as embodied by Michael Fassbender, is an American with touches of Daniel Johnston, Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart, Harry Partch, Mark E. Smith and maybe a little bit Jim Morrison. We enter the film through young keyboardist Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who lucks into a one-night gig with the band that turns into a several-month odyssey when they decamp to a forest cabin to work on their masterpiece. There’s Frank’s sidekick and possible girlfriend Clara, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays squonky electronics. There’s a drummer Nana (Carla Azar) and her boyfriend Baraque (Francois Civil), who rarely talk, and when they do it’s in French (and insulting). The band creates art out of this clash of fiery personalities, and Frank makes it happen, almost like a shaman, conjuring songs out of the electric charge in the rehearsal room.
Their band manager, Don (Scoot McNairy) admires the genius of Frank, which is all amazing because Frank is inscrutable, childish then suddenly wise and mature, hiding who-knows-what behind his mask.
The first half of the film follows the rise of the band as they endure their time at the cabin and finally set down a magical track. But Jon has been posting everything about the band to social media and soon he’s convinced they have enough Internet fame to travel to the States and play the super trendy South by Southwest Festival. That magic, that was already such a delicate balance of mood and mental stability, soon vanishes. Jon is responsible for both their rise and fall by not reading the signs.
The plot arc is not too surprising, a warning against turning art into business, and the idea of the troubled artist is one that has been popular since Van Gogh cut his ear off.
But it’s the mood of the film that feels special. Many films try to convince us of a character’s genius and it falls flat because it’s at those times we can most feel the writer trying to be “important.” The music scenes in “Frank” play like wondrous ceremonies where both actors and their characters will art into existence. Despite some satirical jabs at the hipster culture of festivals like SXSW, Mr. Abrahamson maintains that mood right up through the film’s painful but hopeful coda.
* * * *
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Length: 95 minutes
Rating: R for language and some sexual content