The appeal of Frank Sidebottom passed me by, which may be just as well, as Jon Ronson’s sort-of fictionalised memoir of his time with Frank’s band retains the iconic head of Mr Sidebottom but otherwise ploughs its own distinct furrow. An amusing but melancholic charting of an unpronounceably-named band that didn’t really want to make it big, but for the intervention of one Ronson-stand-in keyboard player, sequestered because he can play three notes, Frank is an affectionate musing on the shortcomings, indulgences, excesses and banalities of the creative urge.
Frank was co-written by Ronson and Peter Straughan. The latter has earned a dazzling rep of late, after starting out in the adaptation game with mixed results. There was How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, and the brave (or foolhardy) attempt to turn Ronson’s brilliant gonzo trip into the weird The Men Who Stare at Goats into a workable narrative. He then ran aground slightly (The Debt) before achieving the impossible and finessing a cherishable big screen Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Right now, he’s receiving plaudits for the (ultimate?) BBC heritage adaptation Wolf Hall and has a fictionalised version of doc Our Brand is Crisis and an (another!) adaptation, The Teleport Accident, on the way. In short, he’s in demand.
Ronson has long been a favourite journo. For a start, he is clearly fascinated by all sorts of peculiar subject matter (way back with Channel 4’s For The Love Of…), which he investigates with an ironic air, one part intent on debunking and one part non-committal. He clearly sees the antic as ever present in life, even if he is less willing to entertain its most rabbit hole-dwelling recesses (seeking out overt eccentrics and whack jobs to bear witness to fringe ideas, ones one is top-heavy with doubt about in the first place, quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in throwing out the baby with the bath water). But it’s always fun to read or watch or listen to his process, crossing from scepticism to doubt and then retreating to the safety of the shore once more. I’m doubtful that Ronson is a great original storyteller, however. His DVD commentary comment about realising he didn’t have to stick to the facts of “Jon’s” feelings, but rather could have him turn to the dark side, becoming seduced by the idea of fame, is particularly revealing in this regard. Ronson’s creative boundaries may be as inhibited as they were when he attempted to become a songsmith, but he’s completely in his element when inserting himself into real life madness.
Frank finds Jon hitching a ride to an Irish cabin with band Soronprfbs, where they are ostensibly set to make an album. They actually spend most of their time dilletanting in the name of artistic expression and discovery, at the behest of Terror of the Autons-looking Frank (Michael Fassbender, showing he’s a good sport and a funny guy; it would be nice to see his face too in a comedy next time). Jon’s friend in all this is suicidal Don (Scoot McNairy; what is it with actors from Killing Them Softly washing up in Britain?). His archenemy is Theremin-wielding Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal). There’s also a drummer (Carla Azar as Nana) and a bass guitarist (Francois Civil as Baraque).
First impressions suggest Clara is a complete bitch to poor unassuming Jon (Gleeson does a decent not-quite-Ronson). But, as he becomes ever more hoisted by his own petard, drinking the sub-Jim Morrison Kool Aid of Frank and warming to ideas of creative worth above his meagre station, we begin to realise her brittle dismissiveness of Jon (“Someone needs to punch you in the face”) and protectiveness of Frank may have a point. There are inevitable deaths, confrontations and dalliances before the band end up – through Jon’s illicit promotion – at the SXSW festival. Where all hell breaks loose.
Lenny Abrahamson, aided by James Mather’s cinematography, has directed an exquisite looking movie, belying completely any presumption that this would be quirky, rough-and-ready production. Indeed, despite the conceit of its premise – a man who never takes his fake head off (“I have a certificate”) – Frank is a remarkably well-observed and surprisingly low-key exploration of (Ronson’s favourite subject) madness and invention, and the ways in which they attract and repel. Like many creatives, Frank doesn’t need to assemble acolytes; they just congregate around him, sitting in awe at his charismatic feet. In some ways Jon is the cruellest character here. Jon and Peter are unflinching in their takedown of someone with little talent beyond hitting those three notes and a yen for the undeserved spotlight.
The actual introductory band song is pretty good in a stream-of-consciousness, random, “got a good beat” way (although Ronson and Straughan are way off if they think it sounds like nothing anyone has heard before). The picture is frequently very funny, although rarely laugh-out-loud; this is comedy of observation and embarrassment. From Frank’s pseudish, gibberish attempts to encourage the band to discover themselves, to his most likable song ever (Jon attempts to make it more likable still), to the inevitable crash-and-burn on stage, Frank walks a thin line between tragedy and hilarity.
It doesn’t all quite work. The onscreen Tweeting is a too-familiar device, and, with the YouTube naivety, comes across as a fogeyish take on new technology (a hangover from originally setting this during the ‘80s?) Still, Frank is insightful, amusing, and steeped in Ronson-esque irony. Perhaps the real reason he blanched at turning “himself” into a fame-seeking opportunist is because deep down Ronson recognised a little bit of himself in that “Jon”?