Few moments in cinema, in art even, will leave any lasting or memorable impact. Audiences have precious little storage in the brain to savour some of cinema’s greatest moments. The final fight in Aliens, the scale of Ben-Hur or Eddie Marsan screaming “I’m Frank Sidebottom” in a nasally comic voice in Filth all spring to mind. Marsan is, controversially, not Frank Sidebottom. Frank portrays him as Michael Fassbender, and even then, it is hard to believe that Sidebottom is a character that existed before and after Irvine Welsh’s novel of corrupt coppers and drink-addled Scotland. But he did, and here he is.
Why the big mask? Sidebottom couldn’t possibly reveal that. Did David Byrne ever reveal why he wore that big suit in Stop Making Sense? Yes. He wanted to make his head look bigger. Sidebottom probably wanted that too. Who wouldn’t? Real-life Sidebottom performer Chris Sievey was an eccentric and interesting figure of history. Some thought he was Ultravox singer Midge Ure. Naturally, that was wrong. Frank does borrow somewhat from the speculation that surrounded Sidebottom’s cult appeal. As if it weren’t enough to have Fassbender underneath a large papier-mâché head, Frank is keen to stuff its cast full of talented performers and do nothing with them.
They are there to underscore the real hero at the heart of this odd piece. Domhnall Gleeson is a pleasant surprise for Frank, his awkward sentimentality and likeable approach are similar to that of About Time. A disturbed fish out of water, experiencing a new life he never thought possible. That is at least explored frequently and it makes for a nice ballast to the wilder components of Sidebottom’s life. Music-making in the oddest of moments. It’s like Queen’s Night at the Opera but it sounds good. Gleeson marks an interesting performance alongside Scott McNairy and Maggie Gyllenhaal feature in the supporting cast and make for the expectedly eccentric performances that bring this to life. Frank Sidebottom may be a fascinating character, but he must riff and bounce off of those around him to truly work. When presenting his life in this fictionalised biopic, director Lenny Abrahamson does well to pick a random piece that could have happened. Jon Ronson wrote of it, sort of. Maybe it did happen.
Frank Sidebottom, real name Chris Sievey, was a cult hero. He passed twelve years ago and it is intense and reassuring to see his legacy catapulted into the stardom such a character deserved. What followed this adaptation was a documentary four years later. The cycle is complete. Feature reference, adaptation, documentary, death of the character. Or, in this case, the immortalisation of it and what it did for the comedians who siphon off their influence from Sidebottom. Frank does surprise more in the sense that it confirms the strange and tangled blur of Chris and Frank, but handles it well enough to talk to audiences about the legacy, but not about the man hidden under the mask. Who is Frank Sidebottom? Does anyone care? Frank answers neither, and has fun doing so.