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8 May 2014

Frankly Speaking

Lenny Abrahamson's new film Frank, based on Jon Ronson's memoir of the same name about the life of musician Frank Sidebottom, is one of those movies I probably wouldn't have got round to seeing if I hadn't gone to a free preview screening. I'm glad I did, though, because its brand of quirky tragicomedy made for some interesting and entertaining viewing. I didn't realise the film, which was co-written by Ronson, was loosely based by Ronson's own experiences as a keyboardist in Sidebottom's band in the late 1980s. In fact, I went into the film knowing almost nothing about it, but that didn't really detract from my enjoyment.

The action is transposed to the present-day, as evidenced by the occasional tweets and Tumblr posts that pop up on the screen, and as the film opens, we meet Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who works a boring office job but dreams of being a musician. On the beach in his sleepy seaside town, he sees an intriguing band, who are playing a gig there that evening and whose keyboardist is trying to drown himself. Jon offers his keyboard playing services and joins the band for what he thinks will be one gig, but ends up being a year in a cabin in a remote corner of Ireland, as they set out to record an album.

All of the band members seem to have various issues. Don (Scoot McNairy), the manager, is often pensive and talks of the time he spent in a mental hospital. Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) the theremin player, is a real firecracker and constantly lays into Jon ("stay away from my fucking theremin!"). François Civil and Carla Azar play two further band members, dark-haired and sullen, and with a tendency to grumble in French and to maintain a stony silence, respectively. Finally, there is the mysterious lead singer Frank (Michael Fassbender), who never takes off the giant, cartoonish papier-mâché head he wears.

Jon takes a shine to Frank and envies the latter's musical talent, but he also wants to see the band — and himself — succeed, and this soon starts to worsen the tensions within the band. The rest of them just want to make what they deem to be great music and to say that their music is experimental is seriously underselling it. They make their own instruments and record various sounds of nature. Yet nine months later and they still haven't recorded any music. Jon, whose nest egg is paying the rent on the cabin, has built up a strong Twitter and YouTube following of the band, attracting the interest of SXSW and bringing the band to a critical turning point: should they continue to make the music they want to make, or should they pursue commercial success?

The movie is really about the characters in the band, though, especially Frank, his history, his issues, and his relationship with the other band members. Fassbender's performance is quite subtle, which may be a product of the fact that we can hardly hear his muffled voice and his face remains hidden for most of the film. Gleeson, meanwhile, is really building up a name for himself in the slightly awkward and geeky leading man stakes (cf About Time). His Jon doesn't always behave likably, but we root for him anyway. The other main cast members, particularly Gyllenhaal, get to be suitably grumpy and wacky, bringing their best artiste A-game. Frank is an interesting character study, and for a film that features a lot of mental illness, there are plenty of funny moments and clever dialogue. If it had been any longer, I might have liked it less, but at a tightly edited 1h35, I thought it worked rather well.

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