Friday, August 21, 2015
Frank Sidebottom is a name that will almost certainly be known to anyone who watched British TV during a certain era and had a taste for the offbeat. The alter ego of comedian and musician Chris Sievey, Frank was originally created to satirize bands’ hangers-on. When his papier-mâché-headed anonymity struck a chord with audiences, he was effectively upgraded to the band’s front man. That, right there, is a bloody great concept for a movie. The irony defines itself. You can hand the Sievey/Sidebottom story to any creative team with even the slimmest budget and tell them to get as self-reflexive with the material as they like. And when said creative team includes writer Jon Ronson, who served as keyboardist in Sievey/Sidebottom’s band, and wrote the whole experience up for a cracking newspaper article titled “Oh blimey!”, there’s no reason – no reason at all – for ‘Frank’ not to be brilliant.
And yet … and yet …
The first problem is that Ronson’s script, co-written by Peter Straughan (who had previously adapted Ronson’s book ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’ into a not-particularly-good movie) completely fictionalises Frank, transplants him from England to Ireland, and shifts the timeline from the 80s/90s to a contemporary setting. The Sievey/Sidebottom story is a real peach; in this fictionalised version, Frank without his creator is merely a cipher, even with a capable performance from Michael Fassbender to enrich the character. The decision to surround him with a group of generally impenetrable, unlikeable and unfleshed-out bandmates – including Scoot McNair, Carla Azar and Maggie Gyllenhaal, wrestling with some of the most thankless material she’s ever been given – is distancing, although some of the band’s dynamics allow for a send-up of creative friction and artistic pretentiousness. Not necessarily a fault – but a too-familiar device – is the introduction of an “everyman” figure into their milieu in order to act as the audience’s eyes and ears.
Said everyman is Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) – in a film based on a true story that’s nonetheless totally fictionalised, the use of Ronson’s actual name for his fictive surrogate is somehow more annoying than it ought to be – a young man living a banal existence in Dublin, still living with his parents, holding down a soulless day job and trying to compose songs in his spare time. Director Lenny Abrahamson conjures some effective early scenes as he sketches in Jon’s day-to-day life and hilariously demonstrates just how fuck awful his compositions are. A contrivance sees Jon co-opted into Frank’s band as keyboardist (remember the “drummers curse” in ‘This is Spinal Tap’? ‘Frank’ recycles the gag but with keyboardists and without it being quite so funny). This leads to a long mid-section in which the band hole up in the middle of nowhere to record their new album, and to give him his dues Abrahamson gets a good few belly laughs out of the increasingly desperate lengths an already up-themselves bunch of people go to in order to kick-start the muse.
Jon never really steers the audience particularly close to Frank, though, and the character arc that the script requires him to describe – puppyish naïf to egomaniacal prick – never quite feels earned. Likewise, the revelations about Frank in the last third, when the scene’s shifted to America and it suddenly feels like you’re watching an entirely different film. ‘Frank’ makes a number of tonal lurches during its relatively short running time. Much could have been rescued if Abrahamson had embraced the material’s absurdity Monty Python stylee rather than trying for the kind of deadpan black humour that, say, Ben Wheatley achieved so effectively in ‘Sightseers’ but which often falls flat here.
Still, when ‘Frank’ hits the marks, it does so winningly. Fassbender holds the whole thing together using just vocal inflections and body language. Gleeson makes a character who is arguably the film’s biggest waste of space curiously sympathetic. James Mather’s cinematography ought to receive Valentine’s Day cards, so beautifully does he evoke his locations, lingering on clusters of small details just long enough. I’ve not seen any of Abrahamson’s earlier films (I have it on good authority that ‘Garage’ is some kind of microbudget classic) and I fully intend to rectify that. For all its problems, ‘Frank’ has some genuine offbeat talent behind it.