Whatever you’re expecting of Frank, it’s probably not that.
Despite appearances, it’s not a biopic based on the life of Chris Sievey, the comedian/musician whose giant papier-mâché head was ubiquitous on British television during the 1980s.
I’m reminded of how in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, his Joker had invented multiple back stories for himself – leaving us to decide which, if any of them, might be true.
So here is Lenny Abrahamson’s version of Frank (the surname Sidebottom is never mentioned as far as I recall), the frontman of an experimental rock band called ‘Soronprfbs’ that comprises by disturbed outsiders from various corners of the globe.
A motley crew
Most surprisingly is that the actor tasked with being concealed under the head is, inexplicably, none other than world-class heavyweight Michael Fassbender.
With their keyboardist hospitalised after an attempted suicide, it falls to a random passer-by, our protagonist Jon (Domhnall Gleeson – son of Brendan) to fill in at the last minute.
Jon happens to be an aspiring young singer/songwriter/keyboardist who still lives with his parents in suburban England. This is his big shot.
The gig is a disaster, but nevertheless he’s invited to join the band in Ireland.
Before he knows it, he’s trapped in a log cabin with a group of clinically disturbed social outcasts, egomaniacs and borderline psychopaths – cutting an album and living the dream – which threatens to turn into a nightmare.
Initially concerned that he doesn’t have the necessary background for a career in songwriting – he realises that his experiences with Soronprfbs will provide a solid substitute for his lack of an abusive childhood.
The overall tone is playful, with Jon’s voiceover echoing his internalised attempts at songwriting. The increasingly desperate band promo tweets that appear on screen are particularly amusing.
The dialogue is consistently inventive and the individual cast are all selfless in their service to the ensemble whole, with a wry Scoot McNairy excelling as the band manager who harbours a sexual penchant for mannequins – it’s a role that could have been tailored for Sam Rockwell or a young Jack Nicholson.
No expressions no problem
Another joy is watching dead-eyed Maggie Gyllenhaal veer effortlessly from a callously manipulative Macbeth to a sort of perverse earth mother – the latter recalling her brilliant turn in Sam Mendes’ Away We Go.
Despite our inability to read his expressions, Frank quickly endears us to his big benevolent head.
To make Jon feel more at ease, he vocalises his facial expressions: “welcoming smile” or “bashful half-smile”.
This enigma allows Frank’s head to play host to our own speculative ideas and interpretations about who he is and what he’s thinking.
Likewise, the film is constructed in such a way that prevents easy interpretations and predictions – it functions the same way as a papier-mâché meta-head.
It’s tempting to wonder how the film might have played had we not known the actor’s identity inside – could this have further heightened the experience?
Part surrealist manifesto, part underdog comedy, Frank tempers experimental strangeness with pop culture convention and succeeds by defying expectations.
For all its surface madness, it’s a warm-hearted meditation on the subjective value of artistic expression.
Dir: Lenny Abrahamson; UK/Ireland comedy, 2014, 95 mins; Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy
Premiered June 12