Frank Sidebottom was a gangly cabaret performer with a papier-mâché head, a ukelele, and inimitably Northern English way of mangling a song. I was a big fan. When I saw Sidebottom open for Jonathan Richman at a London club in the late 80s, he wiped the floor with the headliner, at least in terms of inspired weirdness. (To be fair, Richman only showed up with his real head.)
Sidebottom provides the inspiration for the new film Frank (now playing)—screenwriter Jon Ronson was his keyboard player for a spell—but this is no biopic. The head remains, but Frank is a soaringly imaginative take on the nature of creativity, soul, authenticity; all the things that Domhnall Gleeson’s character Jon must learn the hard way when he stumbles into Frank's alternate reality. Eventually, the barely post-adolescent English kid is spending 11 months in rural Ireland while his new mentor and his band the Soronprfbs feverishly work away at their masterpiece.
“From my perspective it’s about a man with a lot of ambition and no talent who joins a group of people with a lot of talent and no ambition. And then you have this character with huge potential but who only wants to exploit it for the sake of the music and not success, and who’s dealing with his demons at the same time,” says Gleeson, talking to the Straight following the film’s premiere in New York. (Star Michael Fassbender and the rest of the Soronprfbs reunited for a live performance of climactic number “I Love You All” after the screening.)
Besides the head, which Frank never, ever removes (“You’ll just have to go with this,” admonishes Scoot McNairy’s Don when Jon starts asking too many questions about the practicalities of wearing a papier-mâché head forever), Gleeson says it's Sidebottom’s unkempt spirit that’s being honoured. “The reality actually has nothing to do with the film that we ended up making,” he says. “The head is the only thing. But any performances I’ve ever seen of Frank Sidebottom, there was an anarchy to it, and it’s in the makeup of the film.”
Gleeson hopes that the critically acclaimed feature hits the same kind of groove as The Big Lebowski. “It’s not an average movie. It’s got its own sense of itself but it’s totally true to that sense of itself,” he offers, adding that Fassbender modeled several designs of the ubiquitous head before finding the right one. “Everyone just said this is the one that feels right, you know? Once it went on Michael everything started to make a funny kind of sense.”
And as for those who might say it’s a tad counterintuitive to keep Michael Fassbender’s face concealed for an entire film? What would Gleeson tell them?
“John Hurt being covered up in Elephant Man or even Andy Serkis being totally digitally a different being in Lord of the Rings didn’t seem to do much harm commercially,” he answers, very reasonably. “And I’d say Michael’s performance is extraordinary. That’s the important thing, head or no head, so I think that’s what I’d tell people.”