Towards the end of Tim Burton’s unjustly forgotten classic “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure”, there’s a segment where events featuring the film’s childlike central protagonist are replayed in the “Hollywood” adaptation, starring none-more-macho James Brolin. This is pretty much the starting-point of Lenny Abrahamson’s “Frank”, in which Chris Sievey’s Mancunian, papier-mache-headed 3D cartoon character, Frank Sidebottom, becomes a mercurial performance-artist in the alpha-male body of Michael Fassbender.
Inspired by writer Jon Ronson’s experiences as keyboard-player with the “real” Sidebottom, the plot follows the journey of Jon, an ambitious, untalented hopeful, who almost accidentally finds himself part of a band of international art-rock terrorists led by the mysterious “Frank”, and ends up giving his life direction by attempting to steer them towards the limelight. Needless to say, mainstream triumph is not on the agenda.
Domhnall Gleeson is utterly relatable as the frustrated suburban outsider amongst outsiders, the heart of the story being the battle for Frank’s unreadable soul between him and the intense, resentful Clara, played beautifully by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Part of the “joke”, even in the context of the plot, is that we’re never quite sure who is beneath the big fake head; although whoever it is certainly exhibits Fassbender’s trademark magnetism.
There is consistent, dark humour throughout, until the closing stages, when the theme of the link between artistic expression and mental instability starts to be explicitly played out. The fact that the actors are actually playing the music we hear subtly helps to draw us into their world, so that we feel their joy and pain more profoundly than we otherwise might.
The film is dedicated to “the outsider spirit” of Frank Sidebottom, but one doesn’t have to look too far to discern other, more telling influences on the central characterisation – Captain Beefheart, Mark E. Smith and Daniel Johnston amongst them.
Beautifully done - affecting and subtly inspirational.