While based on Frank Sidebottom, a stand-up comic/artist/musician from Manchester who was wearing an over-sized fake papier-mâché head while performing, Jon Ronson’s script takes however this story in a different direction, veering from real facts to create an absurd comedy and a satire of hipsters – the release of Frank couldn’t actually have come at a better time as the acclaimed hipster-poster band-turned mainstream Arcade Fire has been touring the world with similar papier-mâché heads.

Using the writer’s own experience as a keyboard player for The Frank Sidebottom’s Oh Blimey Big Band, the film follows Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a young man who gets unexpectedly enrolled as a keyboardist for a band lead by the enigmatic Frank (Michael Fassbender – Hunger), who always wears a fake head.

To create a matching entourage for Frank – and add to the chaos –, the screenwriter made sure to offer a colorful gallery of characters from the psychotic muse (Maggie Gyllenhall – Secretary) to the French couple and the depressed manager. As, you might expect from such a wild bunch, they always seem to be haunted by some kind of artistic turmoil, whether they are playing concerts, recording an album or just hanging out. This leads to quite a few amusing and absurd moments and the strength of this work is that it never is condescending despite gentling mocking the artistic process.

Contrary to the real-life Frank who was writing innocent pop-songs, this Frank is described as a tortured genius who lives to make art. The band’s music could be described as the Doors – think “The End” – mixed with The Velvet Underground, Psychedelics and early Electronic sounds. This is the kind of band you can imagine playing in art galleries in New York and when they get the chance to be exposed to a wider audience at the hipster mecca South by Southwest, it of course turns into a disaster.

For somebody like me whose taste in music includes a few emblematic hipster bands (Arcade Fire, Beck, Interpol among others), the angle this film chooses proves to be pretty interesting, besides the laughs it provides. The filmmakers are clearly respecting artists but also show that there is a fine line between art and ridicule but also between art and craziness – and if you read other of my reviews here, you probably know that I have more empathy for a self-aware bad movie than for a pretentious piece of crap.

The other critique that Frank delivers centers on social networks. Following Andy Warhol’s adage that everybody will have 15mn of fame, the movie shows how YouTube and other networks can create a phenomenon, even if it’s not fully deserved – Jon has been posting videos chronicling his crazy journey with the band and slowly been building momentum.

Light-hearted, fun and engaging, this little film outgrows its premise thanks to its unexpectedly strong cast. Mr. Gleeson does a fine job playing an awkward, dorky young man while Ms. Gyllenhall delivers another eerie performance. But the real tour-de-force might have been to hide the highly talented Michael Fassbender behind a mask for more than 60 minutes, which offers the usually intense actor a rare opportunity to let loose and showcase some welcome goofiness.

Following a series of high and lows, the film ends with a return to the roots, emphasizing how passion and artistic integrity, rather than fame, should motivate you when making music. While this is what most successful musicians would tell you as well, there is another mysterious part of the equation which is talent; the film never really acknowledges if Frank really has talent and life certainly has shown that talent cannot always be found in art or success –  just check the Billboard charts  … but this is a subject for another movie.

Director: Lenny Abrahamson – Actors: Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal – Running Time: 1:34 – Year: 2014 – Country: Ireland

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Fred Thom

Fred Thom

Editor-in-Chief/Founder/Film Critic at Plume Noire
The founder and editor-in-chief of Plume Noire, Fred Thom covers film festivals and writes movie reviews. He was born in Marseilles, France and is now living in Los Angeles, California.

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