Saturday, 24 May 2014


If there’s one thing cinema doesn’t need, it’s more biopics. ‘Real’ stories about real people are all the rage in Hollywood at the moment, and almost every new release these days seems to have the words ‘based on a true story’ proudly adorned on the poster. They’ve proven an affective strategy for producers hunting Oscar nominations too, with five of the eight films nominated for best picture this year taking their cue from real life.

What a relief, them, that Frank is not a straightforward retelling of eccentric musician Frank Sidebottom’s life. The main problem with biopics is how they must dutifully adhere to the story of the subject’s life, which often gets in the way of the filmmakers’ imaginative freedom, and sacrifices theme for fact. By contrast Frank only takes the odd detail from Sidebottom – the giant papier-mache head, the fact he was a musician, his first name – and uses them to dramatise wider questions about creativity: Is madness an inevitable by-product of genius?  Does art need a wide audience to be great? And what does it take to become an artist?

The film’s version of Frank (played by Michael Fassbender) is the lead man of an American alternative band, who hire wannabe-musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) when their keyboard player attempts to drown himself. Although the film is called ‘Frank’, the film takes the perspective of Jon and his fascination of the extraordinary rocker, in a Sal Paraide/Dean Moriarty and Wilard/Kurtz-esque relationship. When he’s invited to become a permanent member of the band and join them on a trip to Ireland to record an album, Jon’s eagerness to contribute to their exhilarating creativity makes abandoning the day job an easy decision.

It is clear from the outset that the creative process of art will be the film’s central theme. Jon wanders around his bland suburban neighbourhood trying to find inspiration, during which we’re given access to his thoughts as he tries to formulate a song. His attempts, however, are comically bad, especially when compared with the brilliance and abrasive strangeness of the Frank’s band, which blows both him and us away the first time they’re shown performing. From this point on we expect to witness Jon’s blossoming as an artist under the guiding hand of Frank, but instead the film gently rejects and mocks these expectations with something less clichéd and more grounded in reality.

Aside from its intelligent take on the nature of artistic creation, the film’s real triumph is the way it combines both hilarious comedy and poignant drama to weave a compelling and ultimately moving story. It achieves this without ever resorting to the kind of sentimentality that a lesser film would have, and prompts us to accept its oddball characters as they are – even Maggie Gyllenhaal’s terrifically uncompromising theremin player Clara.

It’s Michael Fassbender who steals the show, however, managing to give a tour-de-force performance despite being hidden behind the giant fake head. Aside from the impressive range he manages to display using just his body, Fassbender also excels in making nuanced a character who could have been dismissed as zany. The head is mesmerising to look at, but Fassbender’s movements – his energetic limb spasms, his tilts of the head, his use of his voice – give depth to the character that suggest passion for his work, mental instability and a desire to be appreciated. Then there’s the musical performances themselves, which he and the rest of the case deserve great credit for making sound like the real deal.

By the end of the film the questions raised have been given answers free of the kind of romanticised ideas biopics often offer, in favour of answers that are more, well, frank in their honesty. Madness is considered a hindrance rather than an aid to genius, fame is dismissed as unnecessary for great art to flourish, and it is argued simply that some are gifted with creative talent, while others simply are not. In the case of Frank, most involved in the filmmaking process clearly are. 



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