Aspiring songwriter and musician Jon (Gleeson) has a lucky break when the keyboard player with touring US band The Soronprfbs has a nervous breakdown while driving through his village. But Jon soon finds that keeping pace with the oddball band, and their bizarre papier-mâché-headed frontman Frank (Michael Fassbender), is going to take its toll.
Shortly after Britpop legends Pulp split up in the early 2000s the band’s founder, Jarvis Cocker, launched another project. It was called Relaxed Muscle, and, adopting the alias of alter ego Darren Spooner — a former Doncaster club singer, petty criminal and karate enthusiast — Cocker performed on stage in a full-body skeleton suit and gave interviews only in character, using a Dalek voice-changing device. Why did he do this? We may never know, just as we may never know why Mancunian musician Chris Sievey one day decided to pop a giant papier-mâché mask on his head and start singing songs about Monopoly and football in a high-pitched, nasal voice with a Bontempi organ for backing.
Sievey’s nom de guerre was Frank Sidebottom, and under the guise of Frank, he did a number of things that were unusual for a pop star. He lionised his hometown (Timperley), spoke with a broad northern accent that recalled TV comedians of the ’70s and used words like “blimey” and “bobbins”. His music was slightly annoying and his comedy was never all that funny, so Sievey was never really accepted into either camp, enjoying an outsider status that persisted until his death at 54, four years ago, when, just as he faced a pauper’s burial, it was suddenly decided he was a national treasure and his fans had a whip-round.
There are three things that link that Frank to the title character, played by Michael Fassbender, in Lenny Abrahamson’s strange road trip-cum-rock movie: one is simply the name Frank, the second is a man in a papier-mâché head, and the third is co-writer Jon Ronson, whose script is loosely based on his brief stint as touring keyboard player with Sievey/Sidebottom’s Oh Blimey Big Band. Aside from that, however, Abrahamson’s film is entirely its own beast, a surreal study of art and eccentricity that, unlike most traditional rock ’n’ roll movies, tries to determine what is rock ’n’ roll rather than what just looks like it.
To this end, Frank’s band, The Soronprfbs, bear no resemblance to anything remotely mainstream, which is why they catch the eye of Domhnall Gleeson’s coasting narrator/hero Jon. Living at home with his parents, Jon is starved, or quite possibly devoid, of inspiration, and a chance encounter with Frank is the random break that he desperately needs. But do The Soronprfbs need him? This is the conundrum that Jon must wrestle with as he tries to get into their good books, cutting little ice with frosty theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), aloof French bass-player Baraque (François Civil) and gnomic percussionist Nana (Carla Azar).
The better part of the film finds Jon, played with a great deal of charm and naivety by the likable Gleeson, locked in a remote studio while Frank searches for the perfect sound. Jon is spellbound, a witness to madness, and it is here that the film shows unlikely kinship with 2012’s surreal horror fantasy Berberian Sound Studio. Though it seems on the surface to be a daffy comedy, Frank more accurately paces across the tipping point that leads from obsession into insanity, which happens in the less affecting final third of the story. Like all rock ’n’ roll stories, the bubble has to burst, but Frank’s fall to earth is a little too prosaic.
Abrahamson’s film won’t be to all tastes; indeed, there is something wilfully perverse about bagging a near A-list star such as Fassbender and keeping his face out of plain sight for almost the entire running time. But if you can see the funny side of that, Frank is a strange and entertaining trip through the looking glass, a rare opportunity to see outsider art from an insider’s POV. Why Frank does what he does we will never know. But as the history of alternative pop and rock has shown, it’s best not to ask and, like Gleeson’s Jon, just enjoy the ride.
Dreams of rock stardom become a warped reality in this barking-mad but affecting comedy about the side-effects of being a non-conformist genius.