As the world of outsider art has already illustrated, psychological instability and musical genius often go hand in hand, and the effect of mental illness on creative spirits can often be mysteriously compelling and brilliant while simultaneously deeply tragic and alarming. Such is the case with the gifted yet fanatical Frank, the titular character of Lenny Abrahamson’s UK comedy-drama. Frank is a funky film that finds itself playfully situated between the extremes of delight and sorrow in an attempt to pinpoint the bipolar nature of insanity and genius. The result is a work that is both joyful and disastrous, reflected in the characters it depicts and in the off-kilter way the film unfolds.
You may remember Frank as the cult icon Frank Sidebottom created by British comedian and musician Chris Sievey. As Sievey’s outrageous alter ego, Sidebottom sported a giant cartoonish fiberglass head and 1950s-style suit and sang family-friendly ditties that found a balance between the harmless, the naïve, and the bizarre. Sievey was a child-like Andy Kaufman, performing an energetic alternative comedy show that left people either irritated or scratching their heads about the inscrutable Sidebottom. The film is based on famed gonzo journalist and screenwriter Jon Ronson’s experience playing in Sievey’s Oh Blimey Big Band. Ronson, who himself is no stranger to mental illness or the quirkier sides of human nature based on the nonfiction he has penned, takes a unique approach to Sievey’s story by making the script more about hypothetical situations that Frank could find himself in instead of the facts. In this way, the film attempts to show the answers to questions about who Frank could have been: What would Frank Sidebottom be like if he wasn’t merely Sievey’s exaggerated stage persona? Is the man under the mask just as strange and unstable as Frank? Is Frank simply a confused man trapped in the wrong body? The result is an ambiguous alternative reality that explores the man behind the mask as if the mask was never intended to come off.
The story unfolds through the eyes of Jon, a character clearly based on Ronson. Jon, played by Domhnall Gleeson, functions as the average everyman, an unassuming outsider peering into Frank’s lifestyle and fragile psyche. As a young, frustrated songwriter lacking in inspiration, he jumps at the chance to play keyboards for the peculiar band Soronprfbs, fronted by the masked madman Frank who is played expertly by Michael Fassbender. After one doomed gig with Jon, the band travels to a secluded cabin to start their bizarre process of recording an album. During a spell of strange and pitch black comedic moments, Jon begins to slowly consider the impenetrable Frank’s sanity as well as his excellent creative output in a hope to see, as he puts it, “what goes on inside that head inside that head”. Meanwhile, the rest of the band is revealed to be an absurd, rag-tag group made up of ill perverts, uncanny outcasts, and eccentric nonconformists that are expertly juxtaposed against Jon’s common, well-meaning demeanor. Unfortunately, they want nothing to do with the new keyboardist, and they become inexplicably dismissive towards Jon when they are not exploiting his finances or his talent. This is especially true with the ice-cold keyboardist Clara, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who openly and vehemently despises Jon’s presence in the outfit. When the band actually has a shot at success by performing at South by Southwest, a sense of dread seeps in as the details surrounding Frank’s mental illness start to become dreadfully apparent and his well-being begins to unravel in an unexpectedly dark and dramatic third act.
While Frank is technically a biopic loosely based on Sievey’s infamous character, the film goes beyond Sievey to become an homage to outsider performers such as Daniel Johnston, Jad Fair, Captain Beefheart, or any artist that makes you wonder how much is fact, how much is fiction, and how much is simply novelty. In this way, Frank is a welcome experimentation with the tired genre of the biopic that breathes new life into what a fable based on fact should look like. By making a movie about weirdoes, Abrahamson and Ronson have put together a film that is pleasantly weird in it’s own right. The film ultimately succeeds in combining a hilariously dark and quirky story with a bleak character study of a tortured and insane genius, all while maintaining the energy and eccentricity that made the original Frank Sidebottom such an enigma. Much like Milos Forman’s Andy Kaufman biopic Man On The Moon, Frank is a loving tribute to outsiders too strange for the mainstream that truly understands Sievey’s work and accurately replicates the emotions behind his act for a contemporary audience. The outcome is a thoroughly enjoyable memoir for Sievey’s beloved caricature that would have made him smile under his mask.