When I heard author Jon Ronson interviewed on NPR recently about Frank, the film based on his book, I was excited. Having seen trailers featuring Michael Fassbender wearing a papier-mâché head, I was tickled to learn from Ronson that the story was inspired by a real person — Frank Sidebottom, the English musician and comedian who lead the band The Freshies as the ’70s sank into the ’80s. With Fassbender and Maggie Gyllenhaal on the roster, how could Frank be anything but a delightful whimsical romp?
The film may be “based” on Frank Sidebottom, but only the mask and not the man. Set in the here and now, the vapid-eyed head is a gimmick, a crutch, for a film that ultimately falls flat beneath the weight of indie clichés.
The opening scene does tickle. Jon Burroughs (played by Domhnall Gleeson and yes, that red mop is familiar — he was Bill Weasley in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows) walks down a Dublin street while the audience is privy to his inner soundtrack — snippets of that elusive breakthrough song the “songwriter” is trying to coax out of his consciousness.
But then the tweets begin — Twitter logo, hashtags and all — as Jon documents his journey as a wannabe musician, and they continue to pop up like distracting gnats throughout the film.
After witnessing a darkly comic suicidal scene at the beach during one of these song sessions, the bumbling Jon falls ass-backwards into the band fronted by Frank, the unpronounceable Soronprfbs (worthy of one chuckle), and soon becomes the straight-laced keyboardist among a family of offbeats: the acerbically aggressive theremin player Clara (Gyllenhaal), the tormented band manager Don (Scoot McNairy), the artsy French bassist Baraque (François Civil) and the aloof drummer Nana (Carla Azar). Eventually, this family will deliver Jon to South by Southwest — his holy grail.
But first, Soronprfbs holes up in a cabin to record an album in the fog-blanketed Irish countryside where Frank is more than a frontman; he is a masked guru, a messiah of creativity whose unconventional methods inspire devotion, envy, madness and lust in the other band members. Therein lies the problem; director Lenny Abrahamson never fleshes out Frank or the others. The film tells us Frank is great, but it doesn’t show us.
Frank’s brief music interludes are charming and every shot is beautifully composed; yet self-consciously so, contrived like a hipster album cover. The film never goes past the glossy twee surface. Even in its commentary on the ubiquity of social media and the link between mental illness and art, Frank never really takes off its mask.