Frank Sidebottom was the stage name of musician Chris Sievey, whose Frank was a cult novelty act that toured students unions etc in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s, singing chaotically shambolic versions of well known tunes (it could be Kylie, it could be the Sex Pistols) in a wheedling high-pitched determinedly uncool accent. Frank wore a gigantic papier maché head and made much of the fact that he was from the equally uncool Timperley in Cheshire. I saw him perform once, in the University of London Union, and the memory is with me still.
Jon Ronson, the journalist who co-wrote the screenplay on which Lenny Abrahamson’s film is based, was the keyboardist in Sidebottom’s band. And though the comic meander in front of us is from the viewpoint of a new keyboardist who joins Frank’s ramshackle band of outsiders after the previous one has flamed out, the story this tells works at the level of fable, not fact. It’s not a biopic. Metaphorically, Frank is a big papier maché head.
The affable, shaggily friendly Domhnall Gleeson is our guide, Jon (name entirely coincidental, of course). And he leads us through the flatlining progress of a band who court obscurity rather than success, who would rather die than be famous. We see the first shaky gig after Jon joins them, which collapses after one number. We eavesdrop as the band write and rehearse a new album in a skanky holiday park in Ireland, burning through Jon’s money while treating him with contempt because he’s trying to write songs – songs! We watch as Jon and avant-garde bitch and Theremin player Clara fight for Frank’s ear. We journey with them to the SXSW festival in Texas, where, thanks to Jon’s tireless tweeting, the band suddenly stands on the verge of something they’re entirely unprepared for.
And all the time Frank wears the head – on stage and off – the totem of his creativity, his apartness. Frank is the story of artistic bohemians for whom obscurity is a badge of honour, those doughty souls who though they’d never admit it are more in hock to the image than the work. Beautiful losers, to misappropriate the title of Leonard Cohen’s novel.
Ronson’s decision to dispense with the specifics of Sievey’s/Sidebottom’s life means there’s a universality to Frank. Even so it’s going to come as a shock to some that it’s Michael Fassbender inside that big boggly head (though you could easily convince me otherwise). And that Maggie Gyllenhaal has been persuaded to play Clara. Or, indeed, that Scoot McNairy, fresh from 12 Years a Slave, didn’t have other things to do.
Maybe Ronson and co-writer Peter Straughan’s oddball-packed screenplay for the George Clooney film The Men Who Stare at Goats persuaded the actors to sign on. Maybe they were all fans of the poetic emptiness of Lenny Abrahamson’s trio of brilliant Irish films – Adam & Paul, Garage and What Richard Did.
But how to evaluate in terms of a star rating a film that sets out to sabotage itself? I remember that evening 20 years ago watching Sidebottom perform. He was bloody hilarious for about 15 minutes, wackily charming for the following two or three numbers, but then the absence (who’s inside the head? why is he doing this?) started to grate slightly, before the lack of real purpose – neither aiming for the transcendent hit of beautiful music or the intellectual high of a new insight – began to grate. As with Sidebottom, so with Frank. Where’s the tune, in other words.
© Steve Morrissey 2014