“Can you play C, F and G?”
It’s the simple but pivotal question asked to Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) at the start of Lenny Abrahamson’s 2014 indie-comedy Frank. Luckily for Jon, the answer is yes.
Gleeson embodies a depressed and wayward creative in his 20s. He spends most of his days working in a cubicle, he still lives with his parents in a small coastal English town. He’s generally just kind of a loser. But his life is ruled by an obsession with music. He constantly thinks in song—often inane observations of his surroundings and passersby—and circles “help wanted” ads in hopes of getting his big break.
This may sound like the makings of a conventional story—a likeable loser chases his impossible dreams of being a musician—but in the years since its release, Frank continues to be endlessly fascinating because of its refusal to conform. While billed as a musical/comedy, Frank instead acts as a tragic, multifaceted exploration of artistic obsession and idol worship.
Jon’s big break comes in the form of the unpronounceable Soronprfbs, an experimental band touring in his town that’s desperate for a new keyboardist for their show that night. Unlike most mainstream music films, neither Jon nor the viewer are given any real answers as to who Soronprfbs is or what their sound is. This forces the audience to fully immerse themselves in their oddities in real time: Full of synth and theremin-heavy instrumentals and pseudo-punk sensibilities. What ties both their frenetic, ever-diverting sound and the film together is Frank (Michael Fassbender), the band’s enigmatic showman who dons a fake papier-mâché head and spews rambling, oft-nonsensical lyrics like a beatnik poet.
Undertow the broken ford
Back to garage help him, LORD
Eels are jellied, bloated belly
Scallops seared, wrinkled skin
Comb the cockles from his beard…
The character of Frank takes inspiration from Britain’s strangest punk rocker and comedic personality, Frank Sidebottom, the stage name and masked alter-ego of Chris Sievey. Through his various musical projects, Sievey was known for his hyper-specific lyrics and long-winded titles, like “I’m In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk” and “Panic on the Streets of Timperley.”
Frank was written by Peter Straughan and Jon Ronson—the same Jon that played keyboard for Sievey’s band between 1987 and 1990, where they booked various local television gigs thanks to Sievey’s eccentric stage presence. In real life, the band was the much more pronounceable Frank Sidebottom and the Oh Blimey Big Band, though Sievey also recorded solo work along with fronting the punk rock band The Freshies.
The real story of Frank Sidebottom’s unconventional life and career is told quite comprehensively in Steve Sullivan’s archive-heavy and lovingly crafted documentary Being Frank along with Ronson’s companion memoir Frank: The True Story That Inspired the Movie. The real Frank Sidebottom would not live to see any of these adaptations, as he passed away from cancer in 2010, but the narrative feature is less interested in the actual man behind the mask than it is with unraveling the mythos of a musician.
Even with its oddball charm, there are markings of a classic music film all over Frank: Road trips, eccentric music and costumes, mental illness, recording montages—you name it. But the film most resembles those in the category when the band gets into the studio to make their first album. What was supposed to be a short retreat turns out to be a year-long immersive boot camp into their music. They collect sounds from nature for inspiration, they follow a musical notation system that’s impossible to decipher and they spitball ideas, pushing each other to their creative limits in order to fit Frank’s unique vision.
Throughout the film, Jon is desperate for Frank’s approval, not unlike an obsessed groupie. He’s mesmerized by Frank’s aura of mystery and his seemingly boundless supply of creativity. “Frank finds inspiration in everything,” Jon wistfully writes in his blog as Frank records himself stroking a toothbrush. Jon finds himself in the complete opposite position. He’s good at following simple directions (“play C, F and G,” for example) but he is creatively stunted. Even before he joined the band, Jon spent more time tweeting about “working in the studio” than he ever did making music of his own.
This is reflective of Ronson’s actual relationship to music and his adoration for Sievey. “I dreamed about becoming a songwriter,” he wrote in his memoir. “My handicap was that I didn’t have any imagination. I could only write songs about things that were happening right in front of me.” At one point in the recording process, bandmate Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) tells Jon that he is nothing more than “fingers being told which keys to push.”
But even though Jon isn’t the songwriter of his dreams, he has high hopes for the band and for Frank. He believes they are made for so much more than performing small bars and venues for crowds of strangers who don’t understand them—they should be famous, they should have sold-out shows and devoted fans. But Clara could not be bothered with the idea of fame. This comes, in some form, as a means of preservation. To not entertain Frank’s wishful thinking and unfettered optimism and shield him from potential criticism that comes with the toxic music industry. In Clara’s mind, Frank is too emotional, too fragile, too unstable for the public eye. She could never prepare him for what would happen if people failed to like him for all of his weirdness—or if they were to try and fail to gain notoriety at all.
This tension is heightened when, after getting semi-popular on YouTube, Soronprfbs is invited to play a showcase at SXSW. Jon convinces the band to meet their newfound fans, but it’s quickly discovered that they are playing a showcase for new, undiscovered artists—not their biggest fans—which causes Frank to spiral out of control. Jon tries to make Soronprfbs sound more mainstream so as to not scare a potential audience away from their odd sound, but this pivot to likability causes a rift within the band and further puts a strain on Frank’s mental state.
Frank deserves a chance to be reassessed in the music movie canon for many reasons, but one of the most crucial points in its favor is its treatment of this “tortured artist” trope. Jon incorrectly projects a romanticized idea of mental illness and artistic creativity onto Frank, something he foolishly wishes he could have so that he could make important music like him. “Miserable childhood. Mental illness. Where do I find that kind of inspiration?,” Jon asks himself. But Frank completely rejects the idea that suffering and trauma are integral to the creative process. Frank is mentally ill, yes, but his suffering and his choice to hide behind a mask aren’t solely responsible for his genius—and it’s not what’s stopping Jon from making remotely good music. “He was always musical,” Frank’s mother tells Jon. “If anything, it slowed him down.”
In many ways, Jon acts like an audience surrogate. He is as enamored by the mythos of Frank as we are, both desperately trying to understand what Frank is all about and who is really behind the mask. But he’s also not the hero of this story. As Clara noted, he was not much more than fingers being told which buttons to push. A sponge ready to soak up Frank’s wisdom, a pawn ready to bend over backwards to fit his grand vision. By putting the viewer in the same outsider position as Jon, Abrahamson forces them to unpack the madness and brilliance of Frank simultaneously.
Like Sievey, Frank is fascinated by the polarities of celebrity and how they fuel one another. The adoration that comes with being known versus the ridicule that rears its ugly head when making yourself vulnerable; the urge to make yourself more palatable versus staying true to yourself and your sound, even if no one likes it. Frank is much more interested in the rough than the diamond and because of that, it remains one of the more refreshing representations of musical genius and the nature of fame in recent memory.
Cody Corrall is a culture critic for the Chicago Reader and Cine-File, among other places on the world wide web. They also co-host “Into the Twilight’’, a vampire-adjacent podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @codycorrall.