Wednesday, January 28, 2015

‘I love your wall.’

No, I love your wall. And I love your big, freaky head and your crazy songs. You’re awesome Frank.

When I was a kid, there was a television character called Frank Sidebottom. He had a broad Northern accent and he would play the banjo and he would conduct interviews in his shed. He also had a huge papier mache mask. It was incredibly weird and cartoonish. The eyes kind of looked like something out of an anime and the hair looked like it was coloured in with felt pen. It was incredibly bizarre and I didn’t quite understand it.

I hadn’t thought about Frank for several years and then he turned up in the movie Filth. James McAvoy’s character imitates Frank Sidebottom when making dirty phone calls to the wife of a friend. And then, weirdly enough, Frank got his own film.

It was amazing to me that Michael Fassbender got cast as Frank. Fassbender is a massive sex symbol and Frank is, well, a freak. A kindly, well intentioned freak, but a freak nonetheless.

The Frank in this movie deviates from the previous incarnation, in that he’s an American and he’s the leader of an experimental synth band. Gone is the broad Northern accent and the banjo, but it doesn’t matter. This movie is lots and lots of fun.

The story centers around Jon (Domhall Gleeson), a young, aspiring songwriter. The movie begins with the protagonist desperately trying to write a song. His lyrics describe the things that he sees as he walks around, and the song is pretty terrible. We then see him struggling in his room to write melodies. Just as he thinks he’s stumbled upon something great, he realises that he’s playing a Madness song. This is a kid that hasn’t found his creative voice yet and who is desperately lacking inspiration.

One day, as Jon is hanging out near the beach, he sees a man trying to drown himself. It turns out that the man is a keyboard player for a band that’s in town. Jon ends up talking to one of the band members and before he knows it, he’s invited to play keyboards for a gig that night.

The gig is suitably weird. Jon turns up with the show already beginning and with an empty keyboard waiting. Frank then walks out, slapping a cymbal as he strides in (a little detail that cracked me up) and then proceeds to sing a song about soup. Jon kind of stares in disbelief but then begins to get into it, the allure of the bright lights too much for him to resist. Finally he belongs to something.

Well, kind of.

Even though Jon loves being part of the band, he faces hostility from most of the members. There are two French players who basically ignore him and then there’s Clara (Maggie Gylenhaal), the theremin player, who’s openly hostile. They know that this guy has no place in the band, that’s he’s just some sad guy desperate to belong to something, desperate for fame, but innocent Frank only sees goodness in him.

Have I mentioned yet that Frank never takes his mask off, no matter what? Yep, no matter what he does, he keeps it on. There’s one hilarious moment when Jon, who’s desperate to see Frank without his mask, goes into Frank’s room and sees the mask on the floor. Finally, I’m going to see what he really looks like, you can imagine him saying to himself. He then goes into the bathroom and is confronted with the sight of Frank showering with a plastic bag on his head. He’s wearing another mask. He has multiples.

At first you think that the band are being unnecessarily mean to Jon, but as the film progresses, you begin to realise that he’s the poisonous element of the group. He posts videos of the band on YouTube, he blogs and he tweets. This social media presence is meant to promote the band, but it ends up turning them into a joke. And Jon is all too willing to capitalise on this.

After completing an album, the band travels to America for a music festival. Frank can’t handle his newfound fame and the group disintegrates. Eventually only Frank and Jon remain. Frank is a nervous wreck but Jon drags him onto the stage and they end up performing a song that Jon wrote. At the beginning of the performance, Jon states that it’s the greatest day of his life but it quickly turns into a nightmare, as Frank collapses on the stage, mumbling that the music is shit.

Some people have criticised the final act of the film but I think it’s excellent. Jon is a hack and fame hungry. He isn’t a bad guy per se, but he doesn’t fully understand the consequences of his actions. Frank’s band isn’t so much about the music. It’s a way for this damaged individual to retain some measure of sanity (or at least to release his insanity). All of the other band members are there helping him. They realise that Frank is the center and they don’t try and disturb their orbit around him. But then Jon comes along, thinking that he can share the limelight and propel them to some measure of fame. This lunatic asylum is never meant to become famous.

And so Clara, who for so long seems like the meanest bitch in the universe, comes out really as the hero. All along she’s trying to protect Frank. She can see through Jon. She knows that he has stars in his eyes and that he has the potential to destroy them all.

One of the funniest scenes is when Frank decides to preview a new song he’s written. Under the influence of Jon, he decides to write his most ‘likeable song ever’. With a crazy dance beat and an ear-piercing falsetto he proceeds to sing a song about Coca-Cola, lipstick and kissing. Clara, in complete deadpan, tells Frank that yes indeed, it is his most likeable song ever. In other words, he’s completely sold out and has produced a bag of shite.

After the failed festival performance, Jon and Frank hole up in a motel. They get into an argument and Jon tries to rip his mask off. It’s further evidence of what a reprehensible person Jon is. The rest of the band are content to let Frank just be Frank. But Jon wants to see the ‘real’ Frank and selfishly tries to expose him in order to satisfy his own curiosity. Frank then runs out of the motel and gets run over, his mask shattering in the process.

We do eventually get to see Frank without his mask. He’s a completely broken person, his hair patchy and bald in places because of the mask rubbing against his head. He looks completely lost. But he comes to life at the end when Jon reunites him with his band.

Jon’s final shot at redemption is to take Frank to a hick bar where his old band is performing. Clara is warbling some terribly depressing tune but then Frank turns up. At first she doesn’t recognise him but then it dawns on her who he is. He begins to improvise a tune and Clara returns to her familiar place on the theremin. The band quickly get into the song and begin rocking out.

And the final song is actually really good. Frank sings about everything he loves and you can’t help but feel that this is a love song to his band. They’re his therapy, his meaning, his life. They’re all back together, the familiar pieces back in place. This is the way it should have been all along and it’s completely appropriate that Jon returns back to obscurity. But who knows what lies in store for Frank’s band. They’re not built for success but this last song is actually really good and completely heartfelt. The ending is actually really moving. Maybe they’ll have some success despite themselves.

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