A tale of art and celebrity under a big head

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Frank opens at A/perture Cinema in Winston-Salem on Friday.

by Brian Clarey

There are a lot of strange things going on in the film Frank. This is a movie about a rock star who always wears a giant fiberglass head over his real one. But the strangest thing about the film, which debuts at A/perture Cinema in Winston-Salem this weekend, is that it was based on a true story, however loosely.

Frank Sidebottom was a beloved British pop-cultural figure in the 1970s and 1980s created by actor and musician Chris Sievy, who fronted the punk band the Freshies until 1983. Sidebottom was created as a sort of mascot for the band, but Sievy found success with the character doing stand-up comedy and, later, television appearances and a dedicated show on the BBC.

Frank screenwriter Jon Ronson knew Sievy as a member of Sievy’s Oh Blimey Big Band, an act which featured Sievy as Sidebottom inside the big head, giving muffled renditions of rock classics.

The band from Frank, the unpronounceable Soronprfbs, leans a bit more towards the Doors’ more esoteric work, which makes Frank’s headgear seem all the more absurd.

The story begins with Jon, the drudging British everyman who dreams of being in a rock band. He meets up with Don, the band’s manager, as its current keyboardist attempts to drown himself in the ocean. Jon mentions that he’s a keyboardist himself.

“Can you play C, F and G?” Don asks him.

“Yeah,” Jon says.

“You’re in.”

After that initial gig, in which Jon encounters Frank and his head for the first time, the band more or less kidnaps him and heads for Ireland, where they are to produce their masterpiece — “Go to the far corners,” as Jon puts it.

Jon’s documenting the whole ride through Twitter and YouTube, and after a year in the Irish cabin they’ve gathered enough of a following to play South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.

If it sounds fantastic and absurd… well, that’s sort of the point. But this is no slapstick comedy. A British sensibility pervades the piece, so characters tend to take Frank’s affliction in stride.

As Don says to Jon right after he signs on with the band, “Look, Jon, you’re just gonna have to go with this.”

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“You think it’s weird?” he asks Jon.

He does, because Frank is a genius who can write a song about anything — even a tuft of fiber coming off a chair. The band is wonderful, too, with Francoise Civil as the snooty French guitarist and Maggie Gyllenhall in support as moody and violent theremin player Clara.

And under the fiberglass head, we eventually learn, is Michael Fassbender, who manages to elicit a surprising range of emotions using just his body and the giant, expressionless, cartoon cranium.

“Would it help if I said my facial expressions out loud?” Frank asks Jon.

It’s a fish-out-of-water tale: Frank cannot function without the head, even as he’s wending his way through the crowded streets of Austin at SXSW. Jon, too, doesn’t fit in at his office job, and also never really gels with the rest of the band.

But it’s also a journey as Jon taps into his creative self and, through his time in the cabin with Frank and the band that culminates in a disastrous SXSW set, raises questions about the nature of creativity itself.

Frank’s story arc is less lofty. By the time he takes the head off and we realize that it’s the guy who played young Magneto under there, we almost wish he had kept the thing on.