Sunday, September 14, 2014

[Film] "Frank"

Hello Inuit Panda readers. I have largely been neglecting you lately. I have been in the throes of an interminable house move, while my Important Project (a real time blog of the First World War) has been eating my time. Now I am playing catchup, posting some things I wrote ages ago for print media. Apologies for holding them back for so long, I know I have let everyone down and promise to try better in future.

This film has long been and gone from the cinemas in Dublin but it is now about to come out on DVD. It might also be hanging on in the US multiplexes. Its makers are a great pains to point out that, although it features a man with a papier-mâché head whose name is Frank, it is not in any way a biopic of popular entertainer Frank Sidebottom. Rather it is centred on a character with a papier-mâché head as a way of looking at outsider artists and creative people with issues.

The film starts off with the story of a guy called Jon (played by Domhnall Gleeson and clearly modelled on scriptwriter Jon Ronson) who finds himself caught up in an unlikely sequence of events that lead to him joining an indie band called Sonorfbs, whose frontman is the papier-mâché headed gentleman called Frank (played by Fassbender). Much of the film then follows the band as they try to record an album in the middle of nowhere in Ireland. The band are all oddballs and most of them actively dislike the more normal Jon. However he finds Frank to be a more open figure. To Jon, Frank is a visionary and some kind of genius. Jon becomes convinced that the world needs to know Frank and tries to push the band in a direction that will bring them greater success, ultimately with disastrous consequences.

This is an Irish made film, directed by Lenny Abrahamson, the famous director of Adam & Paul. Most of it was filmed in Ireland, which is amusing when you have a very recognisable Bray standing in for the generic English seaside town in which the film begins.

All the music in the film is by Stephen Rennicks, visual artist and musician. That includes both the incidental music but also all the music played by the characters in the film, which is in a range of styles and sometimes quite affecting. I particularly liked the song sung by the band's manager when he says to Jon "Yeah, I used to write songs too", before singing a song of delicate and affecting beauty (of which he then says, "as you can see, complete shit, that's why I gave up songwriting"). The song from the trailer introduced as Frank's most catchy and accessible tune ever is also a work of genius.

The scenes where Sonorfbs play their music in the film are very convincing, with the actors having played their instruments themselves in these scenes. Several of them are actors who double up as musicians, while the drummer is a musician dabbling effectively in the world of acting.

The film deals with a number of themes, one of which is the relationship between mental illness and creativity. Jon is convinced that it was Frank's psychiatric problems that make him creative, imagining that his spell in a psychiatric hospital (where he met some other members of the band) must have been a formative experience in spurring the development of his aesthetic imagination. Ultimately, though, the film suggests that the line of causality may be reversed and that (shocker) mental illness could actually be a block on creativity.

We also get a sense that it is not merely fame that corrupts but the very desire for fame. Jon effectively destroys Sonorfbs by trying to bring Frank to a wider audience. And in compromising their artistic integrity he destroys what makes them appeal in the first place. What the film does not do though is look at whether there is a middle ground, whether it is possible to remain true to your own muse but still bring your work to more people than just your own friends and family.

So I would recommend this film. There is a certain sadness to it, but it is both funny and affecting.

At some future date I will talk about Jon Ronson's short book Frank, which is actually about his time in Frank Sidebottom's band.

image source


Andrew Farrell said...

Thank you for this review!

The makers' case would be made a little more difficult by the fact that it's not _a_ papier mache head, it is specifically Frank Sidebottom's papier mache head.

One criticism I have heard of the film (which I am still kicking myself for missing) is that the reason it is definitely not about Frank Sidebottom is that tying it to a figure with an actual cultural presence would distract from the fascinating inner life of Jon not-Ronson. Would you say this is fair, or vile slander?

Also I didn't realise there were two Stephen Rennickses in the Irish music scene - only so many names to go around, I suppose.

ian said...

On the head - it is similar to Frank Sidebottom's head, but it is not the same. There is a discussion on Freaky Trigger on this important point: Let's Be Frank

ian said...

On the Jon not-Ronson thing as driving the film not being about real life Frank Sidebottom - I'm not sure I buy this argument. The Jon not-Ronson character is obviously reminiscent of Jon Ronson. But he is different in certain key ways. At least on the basis of the book "Frank", Ronson seems to have ended up in the Sidebottom band almost by accident and had no real aspirations to pursue the life of a musician, while the film's not-Ronson is always trying to write songs. I get the sense that Ronson was more marginal to the career trajectory of Mr Sidebottom than not-Ronson was to that of Frank.

Writing that makes me think that I am ending up agreeing with the point of these un-named critics... you could argue that in the film, not-Ronson's part is bigger because Ronson is re-writing his life to make himself more important.

ian said...

As far as I know there is only one Stephen Rennicks; apologies if I implied otherwise.