Film of the week reviewed: Frank
08:42 09 May 2014
Let’s be frank, it’s weird but wonderful
I loved Frank, I hated Frank, I quite liked Frank, I was perplexed by Frank and ultimately, I was totally won over by Frank.
It is a difficult film to get your head round; but then it is a difficult head to get a film round. Frank is not a Frank Sidebottom film and there are no songs about Timperley.
Frank Sidebottom was a Northern comedy novelty act, a bit of punk flotsam that popped up here and there from the 1980s onwards. He was a lollipop-shaped George Formby imitator, who performed pop covers played on a bankulele (a cross between a banjo and ukulele), sung in a kazoo-like voice and always wore a giant, spherical, fibreglass head.
Frank was always a positive, upbeat, family-friendly character, while simultaneously being deeply disturbing. After three decades of intermittent fame, the act was curtailed with the tragic early death of creator Chris Sievey in 2010.
Frank is not a Frank Sidebottom film, but in most ways it is, it really is. Author and broadcaster Jon Ronson, who played keyboards in the Frank Sidebottom touring band whilst a student, has co-written th script with Peter Straughan and the pair have tapped into the appeal of other outsider musicians like Daniel Johnston and Captain Beefheart.
The giant Sidebottom head has been plonked upon the head of Michael Fassbender, who is the head of an obscure avant garde unpronounceable music act The Soronprfbs.
Having picked up a new keyboardist Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) after the attempted suicide of their previous one, the band — theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), French bassist Baraque (Francois Civil), percussionist Nana (Carla Azar) and quixotic lead singer Frank (Fassbender) — ensconce to a deserted spot in Ireland to record their new album in an intensive and lengthy session that recalls Captain Beefheart exertions of his Magic Band while making Trout Mask Replica.
It’s a very strange flip; comparable with Rod Hull’s Emu appearing wedged under a hobo Tom Waits’s arm in a late 1990s Jim Jarmusch film.
Director Lenny Abrahamson had previously been a contented purveyor of low-key, small-scale Irish miserablism (Garage, What Richard Did) and he retains the comfort-blanket of depression. This is a story filled with suicide attempts and mental health problems.
The lazy way the film buys into the myth of tortured genius irritates. I was never quite convinced by audience surrogate figure, Jon. He’s written as a standard, uptight, conventional Englishman comic div; like Hugh Grant joining rock band Nirvana.
However the film succeeds for two reasons. The first is Fassbender. After a couple of comparatively straightforward performances — The Counsellor and 12 Years a Slave — he is back on miracle form. He has a perfect American accent.
Not in the sense that it sounds faultlessly American; more in the sense that this is the perfect American (speaking and singing) voice.
I have driven myself crazy trying to work out which iconic American performers he sounded like and the answer seems to be all of them. It’s the sound that Jim Morrison dreamt came out of his mouth.
The other thing Frank gets right is the thing these kinds of films usually fall down on, the music. Abrahamson and his composer Stephen Rennicks have come up with songs that sound exactly like the work of a reclusive, eccentric genius.
The film charts an erratic and exasperating course, but it all falls beautifully into place with the final song; it isn’t a work of genius, but it is a work with genius in it.
**** (4 stars)
For reviews of this week’s other releases, including Sabotage, Bad Neighbours and The Wind Rises, as well as the latest local listings, see the Event supplement in Today’s EDP and Evening News.