The 2014 film Frank was directed by Lenny Abrahamson and became something of a critical darling, helped significantly by an excellent performance by Michael Fassbender.
Ultimately, it’s a story about mental health struggles. And it explores ideas of person identity, individuality, and society.
Frank: It’s All About Friendship, Individuality, and Mental Health
Okay, Frank is a fictional story. But it was inspired by the character Frank Sidebottom (more on him further below) and musicians such as Captain Beefheart.
The film begins following young Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson) who aspires to be a musician in a band. But he lacks the natural talent.
One day, Jon meets the manager for a mysterious band called The Soronprfbs.
They need a new keyboard player, so Jon is offered the gig for that night. The band consists of:
- Drummer Nana (Carla Azar, who is a real drummer).
- Theremin and synthesiser expert Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
- Guitarist Baraque (François Civil).
There’s also Frank (Fassbender), the lead vocalist who always wears a giant papier-mâché mask. He’s charismatic, likeable, and welcoming, but also eccentric and a bit erratic.
But while the others seem to naturally hate Jon on the spot, Frank accepts him into the band.
After the gig ends abruptly, Frank invites Jon to join the band full-time. And after this, they all head to Ireland to record an album in a remote cabin.
It’s soon after that Jon realises Frank is actually brilliant, with his musical skills at a high standard.
Thinking he’s got himself into a potential hit band, he begins persuading Frank to write more accessible music so they can all become famous.
These efforts by Jon soon clash with Clara’s cold persona, who continuously threatens Jon (including suggesting she’ll stab him) unless he backs off.
But the recording of the album continues, even as Frank’s highly meticulous and eccentric methods become increasingly questionable.
This section of the film is inspired by Captain Beefheart, who used tortuous methods to drive his band members to create Trout Mask Replica (1969).
All the while, Jon fantasises about the potential success of the band.
Gradually, it becomes clear he’s actually the film’s antagonist. He wants fame and fortune—adulation. And he begins exploiting Frank to try and achieve that.
And what happens is he eventually pushes Frank to total breaking point.
This infuriated the others, who all quit one by one.
In Texas to tour their new songs and pursue Jon’s dream of becoming rich and famous, Frank has a mental breakdown on stage.
Subsequently, Jon visits Frank’s family to discuss the nature of the man. And they reveal he has battled severe mental illness all his life.
And the film ends with Frank catching up with his bandmates (minus his mask), who welcome him back into the fold.
It’s at this point you realise the whole point of the band is for Frank. Its members are there to keep him stable, occupy him, and provide the support he needs to get through life.
They don’t want to be a big band, preferring to quietly drift in the background to keep themselves happy and stable.
That’s the reality check for young Jon who, to his credit, realises he’s the problem and leaves the members to it.
So, yes, quite the unusual film. Very indie, eh? But it’s delightfully weird, rather than being weird for the sake of it.
Instead, the view is from the eyes of Jon and his ignorance and naivety on the matter is what drives the conflict in the film. Only after numerous bumbling, selfish antics does he realise the damage he’s been doing.
But it’s not a depressing film, more about a group of misfits who have already realised their place in the world and are happy with it.
And the performances are all terrific, especially Fassbender, Gleeson, and Gyllenhaal. The latter’s spiky Clara is a highlight throughout.
So in turn Frank is funny, sad, but ultimately uplifting. And we think it’s now something of a cult classic.
Who Was Frank Sidebottom?
Frank Sidebottom was the comic persona for British musician and comedian Chris Sievey (1955-2010).
Sievey largely worked in and around Manchester for Piccadilly Radio and the BBC. He was even a TV reporter.
There’s also the 2019 documentary Being Frank that explores the life of Chris Sievey, it was directed by Steve Sullivan.
Sievey created the character in 1984 and it ran through to 1994, although he briefly brought the character back from 2005-2010 (the year of Sievey’s death).
Whilst mainly using Sidebottom as a kind of Mr. Blobby, exaggerated character, he also spoofed songs by The Smiths and other bands.
It’s a curious story, for sure, of an eccentric comic. And the documentary reveals more about the man behind the mask and his reasons for it.