In Frank a famous actor wears a giant papier-mâché head with painted features for all but the film’s final minutes. There are always new acting challenges, and viewing ones. (Spoiler alert, if you’re the last earthling left unaware. The famous actor is Michael Fassbender.)
Some may want to run headlong from a movie that begins with “Film4, BFI and Irish Film Board present” – the art-distribution mafia in full cry – and ends with an extended rock dirge in a dimly lit, semi-deserted bar. Many a mischievous mystification is packed in between. Surprise! It’s mostly mesmeric, this movie from Irish director Lenny Abrahamson (Garage, What Richard Did), written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straghan from Ronson’s own memories of a quirky rock apprenticeship. Like his hero Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), he was a keyboardist to an eccentric performer. “Frank Sidebottom” (real name, Chris Sievey), Manchester comedian and 1980s music-maker, was the original wearer of the fake super-noggin.
The script is like Almost Famous turned zany-epiphanic. By surreal indirection, it gets closer to the dreams and dynamism of rock wannabes than many a film with a more frontal, frowning brief. What’s it like to write a song (it asks)? What’s it like to move in a world where songwriting is the daily bread and need? Geekily aspiring Jon is first seen woolgathering on a beachfront as snatches of invented lyric dart overvoiced into his head. Almost instantly he is drafted to replace a touring Texas band’s keyboard player, attempting suicide out in the sea, and the rest is his story. And their story. And a story, or fable, of how art is born inside volatile or volcanic human heads, patiently awaiting the Vesuvius moment of self-expression.
If it’s a comedy, it’s a dark one. Maggie Gyllenhaal is sexily sombre as the band’s token Goth. At the end “all is revealed” only to suggest that the package of enigma, passed around when the music plays, still hasn’t been fully unwrapped.
But that is the point, isn’t it? Art’s mystery remains a mystery: who would want it otherwise? All we can say is that melody may be born, at some deep level, of malady: a perception expressed with aching beauty and power by Fassbender at the close, finding his finest voice when finally losing his head.