Frank (Lenny Abrahamson 2014)

By O'Brien, Harvey | Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies, Annual 2015 | Go to article overview

Frank (Lenny Abrahamson 2014)


O'Brien, Harvey, Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies


"Someone is thinking in the key of C!"

A wannabe musician comes into contact with an inspirational artist who wears an oversized fake head that he never removes. There's some factual truth in that part of it. Journalist Jon Ronson, co-writer of the screenplay for Lenny Abrahamson's Frank, did briefly play keyboards with Frank Sidebottom's 'Oh Blimey Big Band' in the 1980s. He recounted these events in a memoir: Frank: The True Story that Inspired the Movie, published in book form to coincide with the release of the film. "Inspired" is an important word in that sub-title, and also in the film. Frank is about inspiration, and where and how to find it. As in all of Lenny Abrahamson's films, the answer is found in profound and genuine respect for other human beings.

What initially seems an unlikely follow up to What Richard Did (2012) reveals itself as a confidently funny and moving serio-comic drama directly in a line of thought and expression with Adam and Paul (2004) and Garage (2007). At its heart is Abrahamson's characteristic humanism framed by the steady gaze of a curious but nonjudgemental camera. Not everyone sees the world the same way, and Abrahamson's gift has always been to assert this without resorting to moral relativism or cinematic cliche. He navigates the maps of genre at the edges, miraculously maintaining a mix of familiar and challenging movements. The Beckett-like qualities of this complex simplicity has been noted in relation to Adam and Paul and Garage. His use of space, silence, and sparse but clear and pointed characterisation gave a kind of classicism to the ordinary that struck a chord through the last days of the Celtic Tiger.

Putting hunky German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender in a giant fibreglass head for almost the entire movie of Frank pretty much sums up that alchemy of fun and daring that we might also recall from Beckett's Happy Days or Endgame, with its protagonists absurdly situated in unlikely physical situations, but no less reflective or expressive, funny, tragic, and human, for all that. It's patently true that the world as seen through a giant head must look a little different, but of course it is we who are looking at Frank looking at us through the medium of James Mather's camera as directed by Abrahamson from Ronson and Peter Straughan's screenplay.

But let's be clear about one thing from the outset, the film Frank is not a biography of Chris Sievey, the Mancunian musician-performer who died four years before the film's release. It's not even about Frank Sidebottom, the papier-mache head-wearing character Sievey created and performed through the 1980s from the punk music scene where he played a ukulele to increasingly near mainstream fame on British television with Frank Sidebottom's Fantastic Shed Show in the early 1990s. Rather, it takes that character, a surrealistic nonconformist with an irrepressibly determined if slightly loopy outlook, and creates an entirely original fictional drama around what a world with a real Frank in it might be like. There is no Sievey inside this Frank's oversized head.

Sievey had actually been aware of the early scripts before his death, and was reportedly enthusiastic about where it was all going. The film is 'about' Sievey's Frank only insofar as the premise of there being such a creature as Frank is given credibility because there really was one. But the film is about the imagination such a figure inspires rather than the mundane facts of 'what really happened'. According to Ronson, there is only one line in the script that recounts an actual conversation, when Don (Scott McNairy), the band manager, asks young Jon (Domnhall Gleeson) if he can play C, F, and G on his keyboard, and when he says yes he's told "You're in." Before the film was even released, the blogosphere was alive with cries of distortion. 'Americanising' Frank Sidebottom, cult hero, to pander to an international cinema audience, Abrahamson was prejudged guilty of all kinds of heresies. …

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