The Most Beautiful Fraud: Frank

The more you know about a subject, the less likely you are to enjoy a fictionalized treatment of it.  Historical dramas, biopics, and ripped-from-the-headlines stories are often unsatisfying to those very close to the real-life people and events; too much must be glossed over, left out, abridged, or sweetened to meet the demands of narrative form.  This doesn’t change when the subject shrinks in size; indeed, it only compounds the problem, as the less there is to know about something, the more of it is known to those who bother to seek out its details.  That was a big problem for me in seeing Frank, the new film from Lenny Abrahamson; as it’s loosely based on Frank Sidebottom, of whom I was a constant fan until his untimely death in 2010, it was alarming to see the vast chasm between the real thing and the on-screen version played by Michael Fassbender.  In the movie, Frank is a tortured artist, a genuine outsider, a mentally scarred American whose oblique and artsy songs and fanatical perfectionism made him a fragile and dangerous creature even to his most loyal bandmates, and permanently disqualified him from attaining any kind of public acceptance.

In reality, Frank Sidebottom — the enchantingly goofy creation of punk rock stalwart Chris Sievey — was none of those things.  He was a gregarious, friendly man, a self-aware and self-mocking gent who would provoke on occasion but always in a good-natured way, a chummy British bloke who crafted simple poppy songs about football, toys, and his hometown and released joyfully deranged covers of pop hits.  He never had a huge audience, but he wasn’t an isolated unknown; and by all accounts, he was anything but a tortured, off-putting madman/genius but rather an endlessly accommodating man who was loved by all who met him.  The only thing he had in common with his on-screen namesake was the giant papier-mâché head they both wore.  Of course, that’s part of the point; the movie’s “Frank” isn’t supposed to be Frank Sidebottom at all, even though Jon Ronson, who co-wrote the film with Peter Straughan, really did play keyboards for a while with the real-world Frank.  He’s fictional as well as fictionalized, Ronson using the shape and form of a little-known cult musician to plausibly explore issues of what success and failure mean and how madness informs or prohibits creativity.  It’s a perfectly understandable choice, and one that works well enough if you didn’t know who Chris Sievey really was; it seems, to a non-fan, perfectly reasonable to use the life of a man who went around in a huge fake noggin exchanging barbs with a tiny ventriloquist’s dummy named after himself for just such a purpose.  But for the few who knew the ‘real’ Frank, it’s pretty jarring to see this intense and battered soul depicted in the image of the affable, nasal crooner we know and love.

Frank isn’t, then, any kind of a biopic at all — or, if it is, it’s the generalized biography of the wounded soul of the outsider artist, compressed into the form of one man.  The story follows an equally fictionalized version of Jon Ronson himself, here abstracted by as a Domhnall Gleason as a self-impressed but dissatisfied young man who thinks there’s a rock star inside of him yearning to break out, but unable to slip past the chains of his sub-mediocre songwriting ability.  (One of the movie’s better jokes, familiar to more than a few wannabe musicians, finds Jon sitting down to write his masterpiece about suburban alienation only to discover that he’s unconsciously cribbed the tune from a Madness song.)  A chance meeting with a little-known noise group called SORONPFRBS — Frank and his sidemen, the extravagantly gloomy Maggie Gyllenhaal and a French couple holding down the rhythm section — leads to his joining the group as their new keyboardist, and immediately becoming embroiled in Frank’s insanity.  He never takes off his false head; he spends hours, days, weeks, and months perfecting every single sound the band makes, to an apparent audience of zero; and he seems to care nothing for commercial matters, or even how he’s going to make a living.  Documenting the daily madness of life with Frank for his small but ever-growing audience on social media, Jon soon finds himself with a chance to bring the band some legitimate mainstream attention; but far from pleasing the rest of the band, this only serves to enrage them, especially Gyllenhaal, who claim that Frank is far too fragile to be exposed to the treacherous ground that is success.

From here, the movie goes in both predictable and surprising directions.  The gig (at a very daft re-creation of the South By Southwest festival) goes disastrously awry, Frank is cast off into the wilderness, Gyllenhaal completely loses her shit, and Jon becomes a pariah before learning a few valuable lessons about so on and so forth.  There are lots of fresh and interesting turns along the way; a decision to keep SORONPFRBS’ existence largely isolated from references to the music of the real world, some extremely fine moments of laugh-out-loud comedy, a few bits of genuine pathos, and one of the best on-screen portrayals of the internal dynamics of a pop band I can recall seeing.  There are also, unfortunately, some rather rote and/or unfortunate turns along the way; Frank’s fall from grace, while capped with a great punchline at its nadir, is much more soaked in bathos than it needs to be, a scene in a Chinese restaurant reaches nearly Game of Thrones levels of ploddingly obvious exposition, and the end is such a treacly bit of ‘hero’s redemption at the hands of a damaged survivor’ that it might have its own chapter in the Quirky Indie Dramedy playbook.  The scenes where the film’s central moral dilemmas — the extent to which commercial success conflicts with artistic merit, and whether psychological damage enhances or hinders the creative process — struck me as well-done, and allowed the character of Jon, up to then rather a self-serving heel despite himself, some measure of salvation, particularly as he moves past self-pity and into real recognition.  But how much they work for you will likely depend on the extent to which you agree with their answers to those dilemmas.

Frank is a movie worth seeing, particularly because of its skillful anthropology of the internal life of a rock band, and some exceptional performances, especially by Gyllenhaal and Fassbender, who manages to turn in an absolutely shocking physical performance to compensate for the fact that you don’t see his face out of the big papier-mâché head for 95% of the film.  (The fact that you actually keep looking at its frozen plaster face, half expecting it to register some emotion or feeling, is a testament to how well he succeeds in pulling this off.)  It’s also got a lot of problems, from its telegraphing of emotional notes to the way it sometimes comes across as a paid advertisement for Twitter.  But it’s a solid enough way to spend some time thinking about issues that aren’t often raised in musical biographies, even if they’re biographies of fictional versions of a performer who was himself a fictional character.  (I still think the movie could have been great if it had featured an appearance by Little Frank.)

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