FRANK (2014)

Fassbender shines in his fictional portrayal of iconic frontman Frank Sidebottom in this life-inspired offbeat comedy. ★★★★☆


There is a moment, at about 12 minutes in, when Don (Scoot McNairy) looks into Domhnall Gleeson‘s eyes and states, “Look, Jon, you’re just gonna have to go with this”, and it’s true, he does. We all do. For FRANK – Lenny Abrahamson‘s ode to near mythical British musician and comedian, Chris Sievey, and his alias, Frank Sidebottom – is a film whose story you are better off accepting then attempting to deconstruct, later.

Penned by Jon Ronson, it is the semi-autobiographical tale of how – aged 20 and the entertainments officer for the Polytechnic of Central London’s student union – he answered a phone call that went a bit like:

Man: “So Frank’s playing tonight and our keyboard player can’t make it and so we’re going to have to cancel unless you know any keyboard players,”

Jon: “I play keyboards,”

Man: “Well you’re in!”

Jon: “But I don’t know any of your songs,”

Man: “Wait a minute… Can you play C, F and G?” [1]

If you have seen the film, you should be privy on this sounding familiar, for this pivotal bit of discourse spurs the start of a more fictional string of events. Here we meet the Soronprfbs, the cinematic equivalent to The Freshies. They are a bunch who take themselves and their art quite seriously; there’s Don (McNairy) the manager (of sorts), and Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who takes severe umbrage at the prospect of inexperienced newbie Jon (Gleeson) joining the troupe on a permanent basis. Guitarist Baroque (Francois Civil) and drummer Nana (Carla Azar) only converse in French.

Oh, and there’s Frank (Michael Fassbender) of course, the singular oddity that – somehow – is the glue that holds the Soronprfbs together. Whilst the film is carried by Gleeson’s naivety (his character is insufferably – yet relatably -#starryeyed), Frank is the real focal point; he persists in wearing a papier maché head 24/7 and none of his band members have seen him without. What would be a cumbersome grievance to many a lesser actor only serves to enhance Fassbender’s skill, for despite only showing his face for approximately ten minutes in the entire film, he manages to convey a full gamut of emotions ranging from ecstatic to frustrated by only using his voice and body language, yet it is in his character’s complex portrayal of mental health that he truly shines.

For such an offbeat comedy, it somehow feels natural that it is capable of so effortlessly addressing the elephant in the room that is, in this case, mental illness. That Fassbender’s and McNeiley’s portrayals of such are so opposing is no accident, but a poignant reminder that mental illness comes in all shapes and sizes and that the suffering of no two people is ever the same. That Jon presumes that – aside from Frank himself – the other unstable individual is the volatile Clara is telling; we presume that mental illness to be all melodrama and extremes, yet the character suffering most here is the soft-spoken and measured Don.

There is a point later on in the film where Gleeson asks “What happened to Frank?”, to which he is given the response, “Nothing happened to Frank; he has a mental illness”, and that is all anybody need know, and just when you fear that Frank’s illness has been tokenised as comic relief it is a gentle reminder that the best(?) approach to dealing with another’s mental illness is to – first of all – listen and accept.

For whilst this may be a tale of acceptance at its heart, it exists in the realm of comedy. Gyllenhall is petrifying as the tense and overbearing Clara, whilst Jon’s presence causes untold chaos in the group of misfits who exist almost peacefully in harmonic discord (just like their music). And talking of music, the soundtrack is exemplary thanks to Abrahamson’s alternate approach of having the cast perform the songs written by music director Stephen Rennicks [2]. What could have been a mess was held together by Azar who, in the real world, plays drums for Jack White.

As such, the soundtrack is a must-listen and the film is a must-watch. It’s offbeat humour  will not be every viewer’s cup of tea, but there is much fun to be found here. So throw caution to the wind, for a brief moment at least, and take FRANK for what it is, perhaps best typified in a Fassbender-styled

Sincere chuckle followed by bemused grin.

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