University College Dublin, Ireland
Frank (Lenny Abrahamson 2014)
“Someone is thinking in the key of C!”
A wannabe musician comes into contact with an inspirational artist who wears an oversized fake head that he never removes. There’s some factual truth in that part of it. Journalist Jon Ronson, co-writer of the screenplay for Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, did briefly play keyboards with Frank Sidebottom’s ‘Oh Blimey Big Band’ in the 1980s. He recounted these events in a memoir: Frank: The True Story that Inspired the Movie, published in book form to coincide with the release of the film. “Inspired” is an important word in that sub-title, and also in the film. Frank is about inspiration, and where and how to find it. As in all of Lenny Abrahamson’s films, the answer is found in profound and genuine respect for other human beings.
What initially seems an unlikely follow up to What Richard Did (2012) reveals itself as a confidently funny and moving serio-comic drama directly in a line of thought and expression with Adam and Paul (2004) and Garage (2007). At its heart is Abrahamson’s characteristic humanism framed by the steady gaze of a curious but non-judgemental camera. Not everyone sees the world the same way, and Abrahamson’s gift has always been to assert this without resorting to moral relativism or cinematic cliché. He navigates the maps of genre at the edges, miraculously maintaining a mix of familiar and challenging movements. The Beckett-like qualities of this complex simplicity has been noted in relation to Adam and Paul and Garage. His use of space, silence, and sparse but clear and pointed characterisation gave a kind of classicism to the ordinary that struck a chord through the last days of the Celtic Tiger. Putting hunky German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender in a giant fibreglass head for almost the entire movie of Frank pretty much sums up that alchemy of fun and daring that we might also recall from Beckett’s Happy Days or Endgame, with its protagonists absurdly situated in unlikely physical situations, but no less reflective or expressive, funny, tragic, and human, for all that. It’s patently true that the world as seen through a giant head must look a little different, but of course it is we who are looking at Frank looking at us through the medium of James Mather’s camera as directed by Abrahamson from Ronson and Peter Straughan’s screenplay.
But let’s be clear about one thing from the outset, the film Frank is not a biography of Chris Sievey, the Mancunian musician-performer who died four years before the film’s release. It’s not even about Frank Sidebottom, the papier-mâché head-wearing character Sievey created and performed through the 1980s from the punk music scene where he played a ukulele to increasingly near mainstream fame on British television with Frank Sidebottom’s Fantastic Shed Show in the early 1990s. Rather, it takes that character, a surrealistic nonconformist with an irrepressibly determined if slightly loopy outlook, and creates an entirely original fictional drama around what a world with a real Frank in it might be like. There is no Sievey inside this Frank’s oversized head.
Sievey had actually been aware of the early scripts before his death, and was reportedly enthusiastic about where it was all going. The film is ‘about’ Sievey’s Frank only insofar as the premise of there being such a creature as Frank is given credibility because there really was one. But the film is about the imagination such a figure inspires rather than the mundane facts of ‘what really happened’. According to Ronson, there is only one line in the script that recounts an actual conversation, when Don (Scott McNairy), the band manager, asks young Jon (Domnhall Gleeson) if he can play C, F, and G on his keyboard, and when he says yes he’s told “You’re in.”
Before the film was even released, the blogosphere was alive with cries of distortion. ‘Americanising’ Frank Sidebottom, cult hero, to pander to an international cinema audience, Abrahamson was prejudged guilty of all kinds of heresies. Never mind that it was always clear the script was fictive and never intended to be either a biography or a music industry tell-all: the internet is often a wilfully ignorant and consistently hysterical place. Abrahamson, who maintains a robustly active Twitter account of his own, was forced to respond to a great deal of hostility from ‘fans’ professing to defend Sievey’s legacy.
This was, in fact, a prescient preview of one of the film’s thematic threads, where imaginative purity is polluted by the desire for popular acknowledgement. When Jon tries to bring the band out of the literal wilderness (the holiday cabin in deepest, darkest Ireland where Soronprfbs (the band) retreat to record an album of totally original character) and into the public gaze at the SXSW South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, it shatters the bubble of desperate fringe artistry in which this group of outsiders have deliberately remained. In a classic generic trajectory of the band movie, the ‘sell-out’ nearly destroys them, although it may also provide the catalyst for a realpolitik catharsis for Frank himself. The film ends with the very human Frank (without the head) singing a heart-rending ballad, “I love you all” (written by Stephen Rennicks, as all of the film’s off-the-wall music was) and staring into his lover Clara’s (Maggie Gyllenhaal) eyes for the first time. Meanwhile Jon, Ethan Edwards-like, walks away into the American wilds, leaving behind a family he could never really be part of.
The film begins with Jon struggling to assert his voice as a musician at his bedroom computer in the family home he truly belongs in: an ordinary suburban one complete with dinner-making Mum (#nomnomnom). Coming home from the seafront (Bray: standing in for nowhere, England), he thinks he has found inspiration in a song condemning that dreary, pedestrian world for its lack of imagination, only to realise he is playing the chords from “It must be Love” by Madness, which he has just heard on the bus over someone’s headphones. It is a genre cliché that the musician resents his point of origin as he searches for originality, and an even more entrenched convention that he is right to do so. Frank firmly but gently overturns expectation at the film’s climax, where after a spectacular bust-up in which a mentally collapsing Frank has fled and his head has been literally broken into pieces (the fake one, naturally), Jon tracks him to his family home in Bluff, Kansas (Wizard of Oz country). Here again we find an ordinary home with ordinary, decent people – Frank’s caring and regular parents concerned for their son, and seeing more clearly than anyone that the myth of artistic torment doesn’t explain him. “Torment didn’t make the music,” Frank’s mother (Tess Harper) tells Jon, “He was always musical. If anything, it slowed him down.” Jon finds himself realising the humanistic truth at last. ‘It’s a good home,” he says, “It’s just like my home.”
Jon’s delusion is that he thinks he can learn to see the world through Frank’s eyes, and so unlock his own creativity. He wonders as Frank encourages the band to create their own musical instruments. He ponders as Frank navigates the world with feeding tubes and a ‘certificate’ that allows him to pass through security checkpoints unmolested. He marvels as Frank talks (unheard, and in long shot) to a German holidaymaker whose rental cottage the band has unlawfully occupied beyond their term, and who leaves crying with joy, waving, and shouting “Thank you for this new truth in my soul”. But as we are directly told “There can only be one Frank”, and Frank, real as he is both with and without the head, can only be himself. When he sings “I love you all”, he’s not kidding, and it’s not faux Hollywood redemptive ennoblement of the audience. Jon eventually comes to realise that truth and inspiration can only come from love, and cannot be tricked or faked into being by affecting the rituals of artistic behaviour. When Jon makes his exit and leaves the band behind, he has genuinely only just begun to learn that he even has a soul, and where and in what it must be rooted.
Abrahamson’s impulses are demythologising, but generous. He is receptive to and giving with the generic pleasures of a comical road movie about a band of misfit musicians, and the film is physically and verbally funny. There are broad-stroke comical sight gags that are inevitable given the cartoon-like appearance of Frank, but Abrahamson films without excessive exaggeration, and this gives the comedy a dramatic underpinning. When suicidal Don runs naked for the country lake in an attempt to drown himself only to be brought down first of all by full-headed Frank, then by a wooden log lobbed from great distance with pinpoint accuracy by an impassive Clara, the scene plays out again in unsensational long shot. Even though the central character looks like a cartoon, the director and his writers never settle for caricature. Each ‘type’ we meet quickly deepens in detail, and textbook ‘quirks’ are never played entirely for casual laughs. Even Don’s bizarre sexual predilections take on a sombre sentiment as he performs a sad, poetic song for Jon using his keyboard, and then immediately casually dismisses this cri de coeur as musical failure. When Don announces “We’re done” when they finish recording the album, we are in no doubt of the depths and levels of meaning that simple expression bears for him. We are not surprised, but are very much moved, when the thought-line is followed to its inevitable resolution. Even Maggie Gyllenhaal’s rather terrifying überbitch, who stares her way contemptuously through the whole film, seems merely clear-sighted and direct when viewed in context. She stabs Jon precisely as she warned him she would, and in spite of his dollar-book Freudian’ reading of her sense of possession of Frank, the film duly reveals a deep seated interconnection between her soul and Frank’s, without ever getting overly explicative about it.
There’s an indisputably grotesque and absurd side to it all, but the film is never far from the dark places we know this director can go to. There’s also uncompromising satire and self-awareness in the depiction of the shallow world of internet celebrity, seen most crushingly when Frank’s on-stage breakdown becomes just another ‘hilarious’ bit of ‘wayward stuff’ that amuses the fickle click-bait community. It’s where and when the film refuses verbalisation that we see the cineaste’s eye standing back with a much wider view of these people than sentimental empathy could afford, and here when yet again Abrahamson makes us aware of our spectatorial participation in ways that enrich the entire viewing experience. We cannot be Frank either. As in What Richard Did, Abrahamson follows impartially, his camera roving like the opening of Citizen Kane over the gates of Xanadu and into a world filled with other humans that we can watch, but not occupy.
Frank is also a sonic experience, naturally, and Stephen Rennick’s songs are pretty much bang-on as a mix of out-there goofiness and ‘likeability’. The inverted commas refer to a particular gag in the film where Frank, pleased with the idea of popularity (people who “know and love us”) and driven by Jon’s advice to make the sound a bit more accessible to the SXSW audience, composes his “most likeable song ever” to the immense horror of the rest of the band. All through it, Rennick provides a soundscape filled with eccentric joy, from the surprisingly catchy ‘Ginger Crouton’ with Fassbender’s Jim Morrison-like slam poetry delivery to the rather lovely ‘Lone Standing Tuft’ performed first with solo guitar, and the climactic ‘I Love you All’ which really ought to have been up there at the Oscars.
Frank’s singing is performed by Michael Fassbender, who renders the songs with impressive tonal expressivity underneath the head. His bodily interpretations are not just wild gesticulation, but articulated eurythmics that work with the scale of the head, but which also demonstrate again a depth of characterisation. When Frank breaks down on stage, he has been standing largely static – paralysed by conflict and compromise. When he rehearses with the band in the Irish wilds, urging Jon (“ginger bird”) to lay and egg for him, or conducting exercises in musical imagination including sprinting while trying to avoid thinking in the key of C, Fassbender is all action – a wild conductor that holds the centre of a potentially chaotic melee. It’s a good performance by any measure, given an added cheeky twist by the presence of the head, but again the director and performer have not stopped at high concept and remained pleased with their own cleverness. Frank is a fully realised film entertainment, well crafted and well executed, with both humour and drama that doesn’t easily let go of the imagination. If the strains of “I Love you All” aren’t ringing in your ears after you’ve seen it, then at least the image of the inscrutable head staring back at you will, and you’ll wonder if there’s a ‘welcoming smile’ underneath.