Growing up in a shitbird coastal town, wannabe keyboard player/songwriter Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson) finds his life taking off when touring avant-garde rock band Soronprfbs ask him to fill in at a gig (“Can you play C, F and G? You’re in!”). Next thing he knows, he’s off to Ireland to record an album, struggling to find his place in a makeshift family unit that includes manager Don (Scoot McNairy), who has a fetish for mannequins, and sour-faced theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal, terrific).
But the real draw is frontman Frank (Michael Fassbender), a rambling, ranting genius/fool who invents his own musical scale and insists the band make their own instruments. Oh, and one more thing: he wears a huge papier-mâché head, on stage and off…
Based, loosely, on screenwriter Jon Ronson’s own late-’80s stint in a band led by the late Mancunian musician/comic Chris Sievey under the stage name of Frank Sidebottom,
steers the narrative into areas beyond biography. It’s a contentious decision, brave and bizarre, but one that Sievey would have no doubt appreciated. The important thing here is that Lenny Abrahamson’s (
Adam & Paul
What Richard Did
) movie is faithful in spirit, and for that we can rejoice.
is a funny film, the band’s 11-month(!) recording stint in Ireland proving a creative maelstrom that’s all maelstrom and little creativity. Through it all, Jon blogs and tweets inanely jocular banalities to an ever-growing following while Frank never removes his head (not even in the shower) and instead vocalises his emotions and facial expressions to the nonplussed band: “Big, non-threatening grin”; “Lips pushed together, as if to say ‘Enough frivolity’.”
Not that explanation is needed, for Fassbender’s faceless performance offers a masterclass in body language, and that wide-eyed, open-mouthed mask invites band members, and viewers, to project their own readings.
The third act is more conventional, with a chaotic road trip to America proving neither as interesting nor as compelling as the spiky material that came before. But Ronson and Abrahamson keep their heads to offer a perfectly judged, moving finale, and they have plenty to say about public image and the popular myth of creative genius being born of personal torment.
in your life – as the cryptic vocalist says of Jon: “He brings something cherishable.”
Verdict: A glorious curveball: surreal, abstract, laugh-out-loud funny and quietly moving. And the ‘tunes’ – performed live by the cast and sung by Fassbender – are a knockout.