Forget about Frank Sidebottom: the comic alter-ego of The Freshies frontman Chris Sievey has no place here. Those old enough or with an inquisitive enough mind (and an internet connection) will remember the fairly chaotic comedian who was intentionally bad as a musician and even, some would argue, as a comedian. This would either lead to being charmed or appalled by his “act” but in essence, it was a piece of performance art, akin to the greatest of punk rock musicians.
Jon Ronson is the co-writer of Frank and was a real-life member of Sidebottom’s touring band in the 80’s. He remembered this time fondly in the memoir which inspired this film. And yet it’s probably best to do as little research as possible going in because crucially, the Frank here (portrayed by Michael Fassbender), despite wearing (almost) the same giant paper-mache head with it’s cartoon baby-blue, Betty Boop eyes, is never referred to as “Sidebottom”.
Frank is an odd film not because it’s as particularly psychedelic or kooky as it pertains to be, but because it’s co-writer has written himself all over the film without much thought for anyone else. While this film is supposed to be a celebration of Frank Sidebottom’s anarchic spirit, it in fact, plays out like an apology from a man one suspects still has his reservations about the real-life story (particularly when within subjugation of a film narrative.) This makes the film feel awkward to watch as while Frank is clearly modelled on Sievey, Ronson’s attempt to re-insert him into the disposable 21st century hipsterdom (by turning him into a Captain Beefheart or Daniel Johnston figure) seems very confused.
For it is the subtlety named main character Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) who takes up most of our time with the film, and this is the biggest problem. While I appreciate the narrative idea of keeping Frank, a possibly non-existent Michael Fassbender, an enigma, because that is largely what he was, Ronson and co-writer Peter Straughan (The Men Who Stare At Goats) can’t seem to make up their own minds about him; this gives the film a mightily unbalanced tone. It’s central relationship is every bit as infuriating as it is supposed to be, except with zero charm, which makes it a tough watch.
Jon is an office drone and aspiring musician, but is dull, hasn’t a creative bone in his body and worst of all, a weird sense of entitlement. Meanwhile Frank and his merry band are the complete antithesis to Jon’s childish and ill-thought aspirations. Consisting of the ridiculous Karen O impersonating Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and an almost entirely absent French rhythm section (Carla Azar & Francois Civil), they make Pink Floyd style prog-rock which is no where near as interesting or as inspiring as the film wants it to be. Later alerting us to this, Jon compares Frank to Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett as a similarly deranged yet talented performer however this merely highlight’s the band’s music as derivative.
If it wanted to be, Frank could be an interesting satire of the colliding of the worst indulgences of the British middle-class humdrum and true artistic spirit. However it doesn’t really commit to either. Jon is perhaps one of the most charmless leading characters I’ve witnessed for some time, with Gleeson apparently taking being insufferable literally, using the annoying trope of visualised social-media to communicate his misguidedness. While this is largely the point, we are encouraged to laugh at him; the complete lack of empathy destroys any chance of connection.
On the other side, the band are strangely quite boring. This completely undermines the film’s attempt to show that “making music for music’s sake is perfectly OK” because while they seem perfectly committed to making their (not actually that weird) music, the rest of the time all they seem to do is sit around and look a bit mopey. This suggests that Ronson doesn’t really understand the concept of “artists” and mistakes it for being “a bit wacky” or as is revealed to us, “with emotional and mental problems” because, Frank especially, is so easily talked into wanting to find a larger audience. It seems fairly counter-intuitive to blame a musician’s desire to “just make music” on his anxiety issues, as this isn’t what came across from the act that it’s inspired by.
It’s unfortunate, because there is a good film rattling around inside desperate to get out; much like the person contained in that oversized mask. Director Lenny Abrahamson (What Richard Did, Adam & Paul) makes the best of a confused assignment with some nice stylistic choices; particularly in his Paris, Texas inspired cinematography and editing. At times the script isn’t completely without charm too, as the band manager (played by Scoot McNairy) provides some belly-laughs. However Frank’s bizarre tone leaves it feeling hollow; the broad humour, cartoony, one-dimensional characters, distractingly twee soundtrack and frenetic pace leaves no time to really connect with any of these characters. After a while one starts to build up a bit of a resistance to them. Finally it’s climax negates impact, and it’s shoe-horned emotional close feels cheesy.