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  Frank Flout Mask Replica
Year: 2014
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, François Civil, Carla Azar, Hayley Deryberry, Lauren Poole, Tess Harper, Bruce McIntosh, Paul Butterworth, Rosalind Adler, Mark Huberman, Kevin Wiggins, Katie Anne Mitchell
Genre: Comedy, Drama, WeirdoBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson) lives in a seaside town with his parents, has a boring job basically answering phones, isn't in a serious relationship and is going nowhere fast. But there could be a way out of this dead end if he gets his act together and writes those songs he has been planning all his life: he has a keyboard set up in his room which is plugged into his computer, and tries to compose, but that's easier said than done and his subject matter is banal, not to mention his tunes being either tuneless or derivative of actual hits. However, one day he is by the beach when he notices paramedics dragging a man out of the sea; when he asks a group nearby what is happening, Don (Scoot McNairy) explains he is their keyboard player...

And what do you know? Jon plays keyboards, so if they're looking for a replacement then he could be ideal. Just one thing, however, as the film goes on the keyboard players in the band have a habit of suffering the sort of bad luck the drummers in This is Spinal Tap did, but in this case it's not a punchline (nobody explodes onstage), and the trigger for a meditation on creativity and whether achieving popularity is the same thing as achieving artistic fulfilment. That this was inspired by one of the silliest comedians of the eighties and nineties, the Chris Sievey creation Frank Sidebottom, was what offered the production its distinctive personality, yet while there were funny moments it wasn't really a comedy.

The Sidebottom persona was unmistakable thanks to Sievey sporting a distinctive papier maché head with a cartoonish, wide-eyed face painted on it, coupled with a nasal Mancunian accent to create an indelible image inviting the audience into a very personal world. Frank would play hundreds of gigs with either specially tailored cover versions or original works, most of which would end with him singing "You know it is, it really is. Thankyou," and the keyboard player for some of those concerts was Jon Ronson, who later became well known as a journalist with an interest in the outré: the Jon character here is essentially Ronson's surrogate. But the real life keyboard player recognised something about Sievey that it takes the fictional one the whole movie to cotton on to.

The movie Frank was played by Michael Fassbender, he too with the false head on, though his version is - it sounds ridiculous to point it out - rather more serious and sober minded. Eschewing the Sidebottom voice, he put on an American accent as the leader of the band, and Jon is informed by Don that Frank never takes his head off, it's part of his personality and individuality, important when Jon thinks there could be commercial benefit in bringing him to the masses. Before he realises what he has gotten into, he is out in the middle of the countryside in a cottage with the rest of the band, including frosty theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal in a notable performance of sustained aggression) and the legend of the recording of Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica is being recast with something inspired by the comic from Timperley.

It should be noted that Sievey fully endorsed Ronson's take on his life's work, giving an idea of how long it ordinarily takes for films to get made when he died four years before it was released, yet while it doesn't appear to have much to do with the original person, it all stemmed from the journalist's musings. When Sidebottom tried to go commercial, what fans he had were dismayed and deserted him, and so it is when the film's Jon tries to harness the quality that makes Frank special he ruins whatever attraction he had as an outsider artist, something the protective Clara was warning Jon about as he advertises the band on social media in preparation for a big show at SXSW in the United States. Ronson's conclusion was that some people are always going to be on the margins whether they want to or not, and that can be a sad place to be, which is likely why this film is so downbeat and melancholy. But it also overexplains its themes to the point of near-redundancy, and finding sweet humour would have expanded on an immersively morose, soul-searching experience. Music by Stephen Rennicks.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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