Film review: Frank @ Cornerhouse

Timperley’s favourite son, the ukulele strumming, papier-mache headed Frank Sidebottom provides the inspiration for Lenny Abrahamson’s quasi-rockumentary Frank, starring Michael Fassbender and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Although providing inspiration, this is deliberately not a film about Frank Sidebottom despite the central character, played by Fassbender, sharing his first name and an identical cartoon cranium.

Instead, this film’s Frank is a hybrid of a host of musical mavericks from Captain Beefheart and Daniel Johnston to Brian Wilson and perhaps even Manchester’s own Martin Hannett.

Those familiar with the story of Chris Sievey’s cult comic creation, Frank Sidebottom, will undoubtedly spot a few similarities in Abrahamson’s tale though.

But before we get to meet Frank, we’re first introduced to Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) – a loveable but hapless music geek living with his parents in a mundane seaside town.

Jon is a not particularly heavily disguised version of Jon Ronson, Sidebottom’s one-time keyboard player, whose memoirs provides the leap-off point for the film.

Gleeson’s ginger-haired outsider is recruited into Frank’s band in a manner not unlike that of the real Jon.

Taking a dejected evening walk along the beach after realising his latest great musical idea was actually a Madness hit, he happens across a drowning man being fished from the sea.

It turns out to be the keyboard player from Soronprfbs – Frank’s unpronounceable band.

Jon absently mentions he plays keyboards and is immediately appointed as the band’s latest member.

A disastrous first gig, which sees sparks fly both literally and figuratively, seems to be the end of Jon’s brief tenure but Frank has spotted something he likes in the naive new-boy.

Jon’s return to his day job is interrupted when he is offered the chance to go to Ireland to record Frank’s new album.

The short break turns out to be a rather long one, long enough for Jon to grow a huge ginger beard, in fact.

Here, Frank hilariously walks the line between genius and madness, challenging his group to go to ‘their furthest corners’ as they create his absurdist art-rock.

At one point he looms over Jon, haranguing him to ‘play an egg, play an egg’.

Holed up in their Irish holiday home-come-studio, Soronprfbs create their own bizarre instruments and Frank invents a totally new system of musical notation while Jon ponders ‘what goes on in the head inside that head’.

Jon’s burgeoning closeness with Frank isn’t welcomed by the rest of the band, however, particularly by Gyllenhaal’s caustic Clara.

She is a theremin player which might seem like shorthand for kooky female, but Gyllenhaal invests her character with deadpan wit, intensity and unpredictability to swerve cliché.

Despite her deep seated antipathy/inexplicable hatred of Jon, they still manage to end up in a jacuzzi encounter somewhere between wild sex and attempted drowning.

Throughout his protracted Irish stay Jon furtively films the band and post updates to a rapidly expanding Twitter cult following.

This revelation isn’t taken kindly by his bandmates (with the exception of Frank) but results in an offer to play Texas’ iconic SXSW festival.

An evangelical Jon believes Frank deserves to be famous and is determined to push him to the forefront – even if that means persuading Frank to retreat from his beloved sonic ‘corners’ to pursue more ‘likeable’ music.

Despite his best intentions, this doesn’t work out the way Jon hopes and he finds himself having to repair the fractured relationship between Frank and his band.

Gleeson’s awkward outsider provides the perfect conduit into Frank’s world, while Fassbender brings all the vulnerability, charisma and manic instability to the role you would hope for.

The relationship between Frank’s fragile genius and his ambitious apprentice provides some truly touching moments.

This is a surreal, absurd comedy, tinged with melancholy that explores the fragile dynamic between creativity and mental illness.

Abrahamson’s film also invites the viewer to consider the freedom of disguise – whether that’s behind a huge fake head or the reality-filter of the internet.

Sidebottom aficionados may be disappointed this isn’t more of a straight biopic, but those looking for an emotionally engaging exploration of a man following his own singular creative vision will find plenty to love here.

Image courtesy Jo Blo Movie Trailers, via Youtube, with thanks

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