By Kate Temple
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Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, released 9 May
Issue 391

Frank Sidebottom, the papier mache headed alter-ego of the late Chris Sievey, was simultaneously very funny and very serious. As a comedy act and band frontman he was irreverent and satirical; as a character he was innocent and earnest. Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan’s film Frank is very loosely based on Ronson’s own experience as a member of Frank Sidebottom’s band in the late 1980s. It occupies the same borderland – comic and tragic by turns, it’s a compelling study of artistic alienation.

The film’s protagonist is Jon (Domhnall Gleeson). Fresh-faced and inoffensive, he lives with his parents in a British seaside town, and dreams of becoming a famous musician despite having very little talent. His world is turned upside down when he steps in as the substitute keyboardist for the Soronprfbs, a band fronted by the enigmatic Frank, who wears an enormous head at all times.
It’s Frank Sidebottom’s head, but the surname is never used and the man who wears it isn’t Sievey; it is Michael Fassbender. Frank is part troubled genius, part naive optimist, and Fassbender navigates expertly between the two, revealing the complexity of the man behind the misleadingly simple mask – no mean feat considering he’s acting from inside a giant head.

Jon goes with the band to a remote cabin in Ireland, where they spend the next year recording an album. Played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy and Hayley Derryberry, with original music by Stephen Rennicks, the Soronprfbs are brilliant but self-destructive, and are committed to their craft to the level of obsession. They’re not bothered about fame, but Jon is. He blogs and tweets about the band and posts videos on YouTube, eventually gathering thousands of online followers.

It is this conflict between Jon’s hunger for popularity and the band’s rejection of it that drives the plot to its climax. Jon’s idea of success – measured in followers and hits on YouTube – is at odds with that of the band, who are after something deeper and more personal. As Frank is pulled between the competing desires for popularity and artistic fulfilment, it becomes clear that, for him, the two are mutually exclusive. Jon, who thinks he is saving Frank by making him famous, risks destroying him instead.

Alter egos can be sites for exploring conflict. Frank Sidebottom sat in the space between art and the market, between talent and fame. Frank brings this conflict to its crisis: the impossibility of marrying artistic vision with the pressure to create a marketable music product unhinges Frank and compromises the band. This is more than just a tribute to Sievey/Sidebottom although it functions well as one. It’s also a film that challenges our idea of success, and asks us what we want from art.

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