Once upon a time, in a city called Manchester, England, there lived a guy named Chris Sievey, which probably isn’t half as important as the name people knew him by. And people knew him as Frank Sidebottom. Now, Frank was an eccentric musician, to put it mildly, who played weird punk-ish songs that were long on performance and short on skill, and were driven by a deep and pervading oddity marked especially by the fact that Frank always wore an enormous papier-mâché head with huge eyes, creepy mouth and dandy haircut, almost like if he was a shoddy knockoff of the Big Boy fast food mascot. Sidebottom gained some fame in England, self-sabotaged what could have been a breakout performance at Wembley Stadium, and faded into obscurity.
A decade later, Sievey reached out ex-bandmate Ron Jonson to see if he could write an article or something to revive interest in Sidebottom and set the stage for a comeback. Jonson published a story in the Guardian about what it was like to tour with Sidebottom, generating interest in a highly fictionalized film version about Chris and his double life as Sidebottom.
Then Chris Sievey died of throat cancer at 54.
Facing a pauper’s funeral, Jonson put the word out for donations, and grateful fans from nooks and crannies all over England donated thousands of pounds for a decent burial. Sievey’s hometown even created a Frank Sidebottom statue to commemorate a guy who, in many ways, wanted to be remembered, but not be famous. The movie version of his story is Frank, an endearing comedy-drama that is just too plain weird to ignore, far too excellent to pass up, and touches gracefully on the creative struggles all artists face, what it means to process pain into expression, and how thin the line between genius and madness really can be.
The story begins as an aspiring musician named Jon stumbles across a bizarre band called Soronprfbs playing in a local club. Their keyboardist went crazy so they need a fill-in: can Jon play in C, F and G? You can? Good. You’re in. Leading the band is Frank, a deeply weird fellow wearing an enormous fake head that he never, ever takes off. Backing him up are a collection of almost equally strange musicians who are all either mentally unstable or French. Frank invites Jon to join them in a cabin in Ireland to record their album, so Jon ditches everything and goes, not realizing he’s signing on for what amounts to a year-long stay in artist’s prison. As bandmates lose their marbles, fight with each other, and somehow make music, Jon secretly tweets about his experience and unbeknownst to the rest of the band, earns Frank and Soronprfbs enough internet fame to score them a gig at South by Southwest. Faced with such an unprecedented opportunity for a band of this marginal nature, Jon is thrilled. Frank convinces himself to be thrilled. The rest of the band all hate Jon for pushing them someplace they were never meant to go. And lo and behold, as soon as the gang touches down in Texas, we see the band’s stress fractures become compound breaks as long-time emotional and psychic pain fountains to the surface. The question soon is no longer whether or not Soronprfbs will be famous. It’ll be if any of them are alive long enough to enjoy it.
This is a movie that understands what it means to give oneself over so much to their art that the rest of what might be considered a normal life falls away into irrelevance and disdain. These guys aren’t weird as an act, or as a way to prompt their art. They are just weird, and their art is what makes them so. When you tap inspiration, it’s like looking at the sun; you get just the quickest glimpse of the full fury of the muse before the eyes must shut and the face must turn away. Frank just stares and stares, and so do the rest of the band, safely in his shadow of his big, freaky head. Incredible art can come from that. So can insanity and permanent burn damage. Soronprfbs does not create incredible art.
This is also a movie that understands that just because some art is meant to be performed, it isn’t always meant to be shared. The most important audience to satisfy in any creative endeavor is oneself; if that’s as far as it goes, then that’s as far as it goes. And as this story progresses, we start to see that Jon’s designs to make Frank and Soronprfbs famous is the worst possible thing that could happen to these people. They didn’t make their trippy music to entertain the masses. They made it because somehow it helps them make sense of whatever wavelengths they’re receiving. Jon doesn’t understand that, which is probably why the rest of the band hates him so much. Except for Frank, who seems strangely incapable of hate, just an incredibly deep fear that the more people know of him, the more they’ll see him in that crazy mask of his, and the more that eventually, they’ll see what’s underneath it. And Frank is nowhere near ready for that.
There is a particularly beautiful moment of truth in the movie where Frank sings with his bandmates, “I Love You All,” the closest thing they’ll ever have to a hit. Only he’s not so much singing it with them as he’s singing it to them, and we realize that some bands aren’t about fame and fortune. They’re about helping each other make sense of a world that overwhelms them. Their music is a shared language only they really understand. Their audience might just be the four of them, but it’s more than enough.