Belfast Telegraph

Frankly, it's a waste of a fantastic idea

Pop 'icon' Frank Sidebottom may have inspired this off tale, but it lacks any of his quirky charm, says Andrew Johnston

FRANK (15, 95 MINS), Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, Francois Civil, Carla Azar, Tess Harper, Hayley Derryberry, Director: Lenny Abrahamson

5 STARS

There's a fantastic movie to be made about the life of the cult singer and comedian Chris Sievey, alias Frank Sidebottom, he of the oversized, papier-mache head, 1950s suit and songs about the Manchester suburb of Timperley. Alas, Frank isn't it – literally.

For some reason, director Lenny Abrahamson and writers Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan have elected to plonk a character called Frank, with a similar fake noggin, into an almost entirely fictional plot about a feckless indie pop group trying to find fame and fortune.

All the pieces seemed to be in place. Abrahamson's stuff – notably the gritty and affecting Garage – is always worth watching, while Ronson – who enjoyed a brief spell playing keyboards in Sidebottom's Oh Blimey Big Band – can be relied on to be both entertaining and thought-provoking.

And a cast list including Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Scoot McNairy is certainly classier than anything Sidebottom had been involved with during his offbeat lifetime.

But Frank is dealt a fatal blow by the decision – apparently one which was stipulated by Sievey himself before his death in 2010, aged 54 – to avoid the facts of the quirky musician's real life.

Instead, the story follows the young Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who is inveigled into the maddening world of the unpronounceable Soronprfbs to record an album in rural Ireland, followed by a make-or-break trip to play the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

It's a standard enough pop pic yarn, but too much is expected of the viewer. As Jon, Gleeson gives a solid performance, proving a chip off the old block (ie his father Brendan Gleeson). But it's a big ask to believe that any young man, no matter how desperate to 'make it' in the music business, would abandon his family, home and job to shack up with a bunch of verbally abusive, uncommunicative and frankly untalented musos in a caravan in the middle of nowhere for an indeterminate period of time with notice of just a day or two.

Of course, in a flick like this, you're just expected to go with it, but Frank is too staid to pull it off.

Had someone like John Waters, Bobcat Goldthwait or even Seth MacFarlane been at the helm, it could have been just weird enough to work. But the movie ends up being the one thing Sidebottom wasn't: boring.

As for Frank himself, everyone in the film continually refers to the frontman as if he's some sort of charismatic genius, yet all the audience sees is a shuffling waster, babbling monotone gibberish into a microphone (as opposed to the real Sidebottom's catchy, eccentric ditties). Clearly, he's supposed to be mentally ill, and in its later stages, Frank does try to address this issue. But by then, it's too little, too late.

It's a shame, too, because Fassbender excels as the titular oddball, using only his body and voice to communicate Frank's 'arc', such as it is. Regardless of the picture's many other flaws, it's a unique and admirably low-key turn by the Irish-German Oscar nominee.

It's sad to say it, because we need more small, unusual films like Frank, but your time would be better spent reading Sievey's biography or buying the Frank Sidebottom Best of ... CD. And yes, amazingly enough, he does have one.

Belfast Telegraph

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