How do you get inside the head of a man whose head is inside a papier-mâché head? In the 80s and early 90s Frank Sidebottom’s painted noggin was a strangely familiar sight on Britain’s fledgling late night television programming, watched by bleary-eyed students and shift workers. Frank was a loveable oddity, a mixture of music hall, Punch and Judy and performance artist. His high-pitched Mancunian accent told us he looked like Freddy Mercury and his unique rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody began, “Mama, I just killed a house plant you know,” perfectly summed up his absurd brand of humour.
Director Lenny Abrahamson’s “Frank” isn’t exactly a straight biopic of Sidebottom’s peculiar life, more a surreal foray into the parallel world of his American doppelgänger as seen through Captain Beefheart coloured spectacles. Jon Ronson, the film’s co-writer and Sidebottom keyboard player for three years in the late 80s, didn’t want to eradicate the mystique built up around his old boss. This spirit of Sidebottom infected his creator Chris Sievey to such an extent that he tried to keep his real identity a secret, even going so far as to had two different styles of handwriting, one for himself and one for his alter-ego.
Instead “Frank” moves the encounter between Jon, a wannabee songwriter of little repute and the Avant-garde pop performer Frank to the present day. When we first meet Jon, we are treated to his mundane stream of consciousness as he tries to become inspired by his everyday surroundings, “Lady in the red coat, what you doing with that bag?” A chance meeting on the beach with Frank’s manager Don plunges Jon into the crazy world of rock and pop as a stand-in keyboard player for the band. The gig is a swirling cavalcade of noise until Frank enters the stage like a balloon head Elvis making some insane sense of the reverb.
Jon’s joy of performing is short-lived as instruments seemingly commit hari-kari rather than endure the torture and torment for a single note longer. Just like Pinocchio, Jon is mesmerized by show business and is whisked away from his middle-England lethargy into the maelstrom of chaotic artistic genius. Frank’s group of believers lock themselves away in a remote Irish retreat and descends into the “Apocalypse Now” of recording sessions. Frank is like Colonel Kurtz fighting his own personal war of domination over his own demons whilst beating his band into submission with his ruthless regime of physical combat and exacting rehearsal reminiscent of the making of “Trout Mask Replica.”
The contemporary setting intriguingly allows Abrahamson to dwell on what might have been if Frank had access to social media instead of traversing clubs and pubs across Great Britain. On screen we are privy to Jon’s Twitter feed and YouTube channel as he documents the band’s trials and tribulations. The conclusion we draw is that despite being an acquired taste and an uncompromising talent, Frank (or rather Chris Sievey) would still have bee too delicate too grasp the exposure the Internet might have given him. Ronson himself has stated, “he was quite chaotic he didn’t see things through to the end.” Still the moving final performance of “I love you all” is a fitting tribute to what might have been if Sidebottom has the courage to unmask his real persona.
Michael Fassbender is often on the sidelines; a brooding cartoon rarely removing the mask and letting his lean body arch and angle like the punctuation for his missing face. His voice has that lilting, haunted quality of a man at odds with his talent, at worse white noise, at best a Venn diagram of Thom Yorke and Jim Morrison at their most soulful with the lyrical lunacy of Kool Kieth. The band are called “Soronprfbs” the most unpronounceable name since Dr. Hfuhruhurr in “The Man with Two Brains” and they are; Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy and Carla Azar.
In the end, “Frank” is a brilliant, anarchic expedition into the soul of an artist and an examination of that artist’s fragile mental health.