The papier mâché mask of Frank starts out as a slightly intimidating image of wide eyed interest. The large blue eyes and slightly open mouth present a permanent expression of innocent confusion. By the end however, the smudged makeup of the night before, and the duct tape holding it together tell a very different tale. The film seems to wear a similar mask of its own and unfolds in very much the same way. The early innocent optimism and buoyant humour is replaced by fissures in relationships and the initial excitement gives way as deeper issues come to the fore.
The film takes inspiration from the real life Frank Sidebottom, the stage character of Chris Sievey who wore an almost identical head during his performances. The screenplay comes in part from Jon Ronson’s factual account as the keyboard player in Sievey’s band. Like Jonson’s other screenplay, The Men Who Stare at Goats, it merely dabbles with the truth in order to tell a story which encapsulates so much more than a simple, straightforward biopic could. Jon Ronson’s experiences are portrayed in Domhall Gleeson’s character Jon, an aspiring musician and keyboard player who was in the right place and the right time and is recruited as the new keyboard player of the eccentric ‘Soronprfbs’ because he brought something ‘cherishable’ to the band. Jon then embarks on what turns out to be a year long retreat to rehearse and record the album in what resembles a Captain Beefheart style mindset.
Indeed it is not only the Frank Sidebottom myth that is dissected here, but the presence of musicians such as Captain Beefheart are clearly felt in the story. Exploring the long standing cliché of the links between creative genius and mental illness, the focus of Frank becomes far more universal than a single musical figure. Believing that Frank’s talent stemmed from a troubled childhood Jon didn’t have, and assuming the other members of this eccentric, yet highly innovative band all too suffer from mental health issues, Jon gradually discovers that the stereotype may not have a huge basis in fact.
Despite the rather large mask, Michael Fassbender portrayal of Frank is a marvel. With the facial expression completely redundant, Fassbender has to resort to his physicality and his voice in order to transform a papier mâché head into a real three dimensional character – something which he certainly succeeds in. Frank is both highly complex and incredibly charismatic, a trait not easy to portray when your face is frozen into one expression. Scoot McNairy’s Don bemoans early on that he wants ‘to be Frank’, which at first glance seems like an entirely strange longing. Fassbender’s performance however creates a character who is utterly captivating and charming; the type of person who can make life both more interesting and more difficult. It is this reason why people gravitate towards him and indeed the ensemble cast presenting a similar collection of eclectic characters. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Clara is attached to Frank, to the point that she does not want to share him with anyone else. Her clear dislike towards Jon, as he attempts to introduce Frank to a wider audience, manifests itself as anger and bitterness and creates some of the most hilarious moments of the film. McNairy too is excellent as a caricature of a troubled soul struggling to flourish creatively, and all this collective chaos is watched on by Gleeson’s overly keen Jon, whose attempts to give the band a more prevalent social media presence. All this contributes to the humour of the film.
After all this is a tragicomedy, and the weightier issues are countered by the laugh out loud black comedy that runs throughout. In the end, Frank is a darkly funny yet ultimately poignant exploration of the psyche attached to creative genius. It tackles and yet disposes of all the clichés attached to the image of a tortured artist and in the same way manages to collide head on with difficult issues concerning mental illness and suicide. The mask of Frank uses a dual application, both representing the liberation and the restriction of the character. Frank himself manages to be at one point entirely unique; it is a part of this incredibly interesting and charismatic man. At the same time it represents more than itself and manages to create an anonymous figure that we can all relate to, giving this story universal application and appeal.