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FRANK (director: Leonard Abrahamson; screenwriters: Jon Ronson/Peter Straughan/based on a newspaper article by Jon Ronson; cinematographer: James Mather; editor: Nathan Nugent; music: Stephen Rennicks; cast: Domhnall Gleeson (Jon), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Clara), Scoot McNairy (Don), Michael Fassbender (Frank), Carla Azar (Nana), François Civil (Baraque); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Ed Guiney/David Barron/Stevie Lee; Magnolia Pictures; 2014-Ireland)
“A very touching and funny musical story about not selling out.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Leonard Abrahamson (“What Richard Did”/”Adam & Paul”/”Garage”) directed cult film was impressive. It’s an outlandish satire on pop culture and our mental health that’s filled with eccentric characters, armed with a funny droll humor and tells a subversive story that compares mental illness with the popularity cravings promoted by the social media. It’s based on a newspaper article by Jon Ronson, and is written by Ronson and Peter Straughan. The movie is loosely based on Frank Sidebottom, a.k.a. Chris Sievey, a Brit comic who was a minor underground success in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He always appeared on stage wearing a fake head with a cartoon face painted on it. The comic toured with the Oh Blimey Big Band. Frank died in 2010 as a pauper, but had enough loyal fans to ante up to give him a proper burial. Jon Ronson played keyboard for Frank’s band. The story is thereby told from Ronson’s POV and not Frank’s, and is updated to report on the impact of twitter on the pop culture world. If you can ignore the reality about the story being distorted and just take it as played, this is a very touching and funny musical story about not selling out. It’s a pic that gets into the heads of its eccentrics.

The alter ego for Ronson is played by Domhnall Gleeson, who is the sweet aspiring young keyboard player with the ginger hair named Jon. He joins Frank’s band, with the impossible sounding name of Soronprfbs, as a replacement for its suicidal keyboard player. Jon is hired by Don (Scoot McNairy), the band’s manager and a former mental patient, at the beach scene of the attempted drowning. Jon is warmly received by the band leader Frank (Michael Fassbender), who wears a giant fake head (made of papier-mâché) which he has never taken off –therefore no one knows what he looks like. But Jon is badly received by the drummer Nana (Carla Azar), the arrogant French speaking bassist Baraque (François Civil) and Frank’s ice-cold cutting protective lover, Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal). The band members don’t trust him and question his innovative musical ability.

Without telling Jon ahead of time, the band decides to work on an earth-shattering album and for 18 months they rent a secluded cabin in the woods. They take so long because Frank will not go public until he gets the quality of music that will reach everyone and at the same time satisfy him as an artist. Things change radically when the ambitious Jon, with an eye for commercial success, depicted as a social-media troll, induces the band leader to accept a gig in Austin, Texas, at the SXSW Music Festival because of a number of hits on his twitter account showing the public is ready for such radical music. But that invite turns into a nightmare when the band can’t compromise their music for celebrity and everything goes bust.

Abrahamson wrote the creative lyrics to a number of songs by Stephen Rennicks, including the pic’s most impactful song “I Love You All” that reunites the band without the untalented Jon. Of note, the actors sing the songs.

One can’t say enough about the stupendous performance by Fassbender, who couldn’t be more expressive with or without a fake head, as he portrays someone who feels he can only express himself if he hides behind a mask.

REVIEWED ON 11/28/2014 GRADE: A-

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”