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G2: Film & Music: Reviews: Film: Man in the ironic mask: Michael Fassbender's chops remain hidden during most of this beguiling tragicomic fable inspired by Jon Ronson's memoir about cult indie enigma Frank Sidebottom: Frank, 4/5

May 9, 2014

Peter Bradshaw



Dir: Lenny Abrahamson. With: Michael Fassbender, Domnhall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal. 95min. Cert: 15

After just a few minutes in the company of this beguiling and bizarre tragicomedy, the metaphor becomes irresistible. Maybe it is only possible to be frank if you are wearing a mask. Fictional imposture is what makes honesty possible. The facade is liberating. Or is it that the rigidness of the mask enables individual expression? Frank is based on the memories of journalist Jon Ronson, a friend and sometime bandmate of cult singing phenomenon Chris Sievey, who performed fascinatingly weird, muzaky cabaret numbers calling himself Frank Sidebottom. He wore an enormous papier-mache head, bearing a cartoon face, a hairstyle like the Mad magazine boy and big, staring cow eyes. He died of cancer in 2010, having achieved some TV success in which this persona was thought to be intentionally comic, at least in part.

In real life, he was known to remove the head off stage. For this movie, he is simply "Frank" and never removes the head. These and other fictional inventions perhaps come closer to a poignant truth about Frank, than straight journalistic reporting. Working with Ronson, screenwriter Peter Straughan has created an engrossing, funny, tender story, which Lenny Abrahamson directs with flair. His Frank is a cousin to the lonely outsider figures from earlier movies such as Adam & Paul (2004) and Garage (2007).

The casting is part of it. If a tree falls in the forest with no one to hear it, does it make a sound? Similarly, if Michael Fassbender is playing a part in which his super-famous chops are encased in a weird, fake head for nearly all the film, was there any point in getting him to turn up every day? Couldn't they have got a double? Well, Fassbender reportedly performed everything himself. He might well have reacted to any suggestion of a double the way De Niro would have responded if someone offered him a latex fat suit to play Jake LaMotta.

Domhnall Gleeson plays Jon, the Sancho Panza to Frank's Quixote, or perhaps James Boswell to his Samuel Johnson. He is the hapless amateur keyboardist with a boring office job, dreaming of music stardom. There is a very funny scene in which he tries to compose a pop song in his bedroom with GarageBand open on the laptop; this insidiously turns into the famous hit single half-heard on the radio just a minute before. Jon's life is changed by a chance meeting with a massively uncommercial touring avant garde rock band, whose lead singer is the enigmatic, fake head-wearing Frank. Lacking a keyboard player, he agrees to hire Jon, but existing devotees and bandmembers such as Don (Scoot McNairy) and Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) are deeply suspicious of this dopey newcomer, to whom their leader Frank has taken such an unaccountable liking. And they are furious when Jon persuades Frank to try "likability" as a radical new experiment. As he tempts Frank and the band towards selling out, tensions mount to breaking point.

Famous people believe that their face is their fortune. Frank subverts that. After a while, his strange, blank papier-mache stare actually appears to change expression, subtly, with the dialogue, a comic optical illusion that Frank himself whimsically enforces by telling everyone what his expression is underneath - "non-threatening grin" etc. It is a sort of Kuleshov effect - in the 1920s, Russian film-maker Lev Kuleshov showed audiences the same actor's unchanging face in different contexts and persuaded them to believe the actor was expressing grief, rage, ecstasy etc.

Is Frank quite mad? No. He is more a dark star of emotional damage who has drawn in those with similar insecurities. At some moments, he is like Pink Floyd's legendary Syd Barrett, but a Syd Barrett who does not realise that reclusive obscurity is happening to him without him wishing it. At other times, he is like a wackier version of the Trotskyist leader Gerry Healy, who enforced his rule on tiny numbers of cult devotees. Abrahamson, Ronson and Straughan wittily suggest that the difference between cult strangeness and celebrity status is a matter of scale only.

Frank works as satire, as memoir, as comedy bromance, but it works mostly because it is just so weird: an anti-Dumas fable about a man who never removes a fake head. There is a kind of heroism in Frank's refusal to be bounded by what he looks like. He confesses his disgust with the human face to Jon. It is like a sci-fi nightmare, he says, and "lips are the edges of a very serious wound". Well, we all pay lip service to the idea that looks aren't everything. Frank is actually doing something about it.


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Source: Guardian (UK)


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