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What goes on inside the head inside that head?

If FRANK were an album and you ran a record store, you would probably file it in a section called something like “unclassifiable” or “weird shit” or “?!?” or whatever other handy, basically useless descriptor you resort to for those utterly sui generis creations that just won’t fit anywhere else. If FRANK were a person you would probably do something like the same thing. What is he exactly? What are we supposed to call him? A genius? A freak? A joker? Or just a joke?

Well, in fact, Frank was a person. Or rather, he was a persona, invented by musician Chris Sievey in England in the 1980s. Sievey, under his own name and as The Freshies, released music (and performed with his naked head) for several years without achieving notable success before he created the great big papier-mâché head — more elliptical than the spherical version donned by Michael Fassbender in the film — that, when he wore it, transformed him into Frank Sidebottom. Initially intended to be a gag — Frank was The Freshies’ biggest fan, see — Sidebottom soon took over center stage, where he proved to be more popular than the unaugmented Sievey had ever been. Although never a huge star, Frank was not unknown in the UK, where a number of people associated with him went on to attain fame on a level that eluded him. When Frank — I mean, Sievey — died of throat cancer in 2010, more than $40,000 dollars was quickly raised to fund his funeral. Jon Ronson — a journalist who once played keyboards for Frank — wrote an article about him for The Guardian, and went on to co-write Lenny Abrahamson’s new film.

I didn’t know anything about the above back-story until after I’d seen FRANK, which just opened at the Kendall in Cambridge this past weekend. Knowing it is certainly not necessary for an appreciation of Abrahamson’s manically quirky yet heartfelt and troubling film, but I expect that people — most of them English people — familiar with Sievey’s story will have a different experience of it from the rest of us. The fact that this isn’t really Sievey’s story at all may sit oddly with some. Borrowing liberally from Daniel Johnston’s biography and Captain Beefheart’s vocal stylings, Fassbender’s Frank is intended to signify more broadly than the historical (albeit theatrical) Sidebottom did. So why use the trappings of a “true” story only to tell a fundamentally different one? Or is it actually the same story in the important points, and only the trappings have changed? Ignorance of Sievey’s story might spare us these reflections, or alter the way we consider them. Either way, it seems to this reviewer as if Ronson and Abrahamson have fashioned yet another mask, plopping a third head of their own artful fabrication over the nested noggins of Frank and Sievey.

The story’s true protagonist, in any event, isn’t Frank himself, but Jon, a would-be composer played with wide-eyed, baffled wonder by Domnhal Gleeson. As the film begins, Jon, an entry-level office-drone who lives with his parents, stands alone on a beach, looking around, free-associating. He proceeds to stroll through his suburban town, vainly willing himself to find inspiration to write a song in every banal observation he can muster: the color of an umbrella or a jacket, a mother walking by with her infant, whatever. We hear him stumble-sing these stillborn songs in his head as he goes: “Ladies with babies,” he warbles — “that’s … how it works.”

A wistful, whimsical tone has been established, but it slips quickly into deeper levels of quirk when Jon witnesses a near-suicide at the beach. The rescued but ravaged fellow dragged from the murk turns out to be the (now former) keyboard player for a band in town to play that very night: the mysterious because unpronounceable Soronprfbs. The band’s manager, Don (Scoot McNairy), mutters to Jon that the show is cancelled unless he knows a local keyboard player. “I’m a keyboard player,” Jon shyly volunteers. From there — as Jon says on his Twitter page — it’s “through the looking glass,” both for him and for us. Soronprfbs is, of course, Frank’s band, and Jon’s rendezvous with destiny is on.

The intense, belligerent (“stay the fuck away from my theremin”) Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) represents the part of us that so cherishes the uniqueness of our cult idols that we want to keep them to ourselves; to protect them from the deforming interest and bandwagon-jumping fandom of, well, almost everybody else in the world. Jon assumes that she, like Don, must have met Frank during one of his stints in a mental hospital, but no, Clara isn’t insane — she’s in love with and in thrall to what she perceives as the purity of Frank’s insanity. Hers is just another kind of pandering, no less exploitative and selfish than Jon’s turns out to be.

The band is rounded out by a pair of French (and fairly exclusively French-speaking) musicians (Francois Civil and Carla Azar) who share Clara’s fierce loyalty to Frank in his brave, bizarre, outsider guise. But there’s another side of Frank, ignored by his old comrades but eagerly drawn out by Jon, who — seemingly so guileless in the beginning — self-servingly stokes Frank’s long-dormant dream of honest-to-God stardom, encouraging Frank’s belief in his own “likeability” as perhaps no one has since Frank left his allegedly “difficult” childhood behind back in Bluff City, Kansas (population: 65).

After a year holed up in the Irish wilderness working (but mostly failing to work) on their album — a kind of Captain Meatloafheart art-rock monstrosity that veers from cacophonous clatter to portentously crooned, half-baked soliloquies, over the recording of which Frank exercises a domineering perfectionism that recalls yet another cracked genius, the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson — Soronprfbs receives a once in a lifetime opportunity when Jon parlays his assiduous cultivation of an online following into an invitation to the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. Frank is exultant — 23,000 views on Youtube! Finally, an audience that will love and appreciate him! Jon’s influence is at its zenith; the rest of the band — sullen, or, as usual with Clara, threatening (“someone needs to punch you in the face”) — slouches along for the ride. It’s apotheosis-time, and Abrahamson deftly steers us through the aggrandizing and catastrophizing to come, throwing in some light indie-scene satire as he goes.

FRANK’s tone lurches throughout, from charmingly odd to creepily weird, from poignantly probing to gleefully demented, from here to there and back again (we see Jon reading ‘The Hobbit’ at one point, perhaps underlining the film’s quest-narrative aspect). There are running jokes groping towards provocative ideas — the side-story involving Jon’s gradual ascent of mount Twitter being the most prominent among them.

But at it’s heart, FRANK is a film about mental illness and creativity. Each of Abrahamson’s previous three films, all excellent — ADAM & PAUL (2004), GARAGE (2007), and WHAT RICHARD DID (2012) — features differently damaged characters undermined in some fundamental way by their own make-up. FRANK explores the encounter between fragile, gifted people and a world that can either help or, more often, hinder them, whether by seeking to understand and thereby foster their talents or else by romanticizing or ridiculing their otherness. Abrahamson’s most ambitious film, FRANK is also his least completely convincing — there’s an awful lot to think about here, and a great deal of fun to be had, but the earlier films’ deep focus is lacking, and some viewers will leave the theatre scratching their own big weird heads, knowing they’ve experienced something special but unsure how and how well it all fits together.

Opened 8/22
95 minutes

Kendall Square Cinema
One Kendall Square
355 Binney Street
Cambridge, MA 02139

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