My friends are split into two categories – those who smile when I say Frank Sidebottom, and those who look at me a bit strangely. And even more strangely when I describe him, and maybe sing a line or two from Guess Who’s Been on Match of the Day… He was a legend, and when Chris Sievey (the man inside Frank’s head) died penniless in 2010, his fans put their hands in their pockets and paid for his funeral.
There are two Sidebottom films coming this year. Frank, the first one to be released, is a fictional tale of another Frank, played by Michael Fassbender, complete with the spirit of the original, but with an American accent and, I suspect, a rather more honed physique (the other is a straightforward documentary). If you’re expecting a biopic from Frank, you’ll be confused. Very confused. Actually you’ll be a bit confused whatever you were expecting. But in a good way.
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson and co-written by Jon Ronson (who played keyboards with Frank Sidebottom’s Oh Blimey Big Band) this is an affectionate homage to Frank the character, some of it loosely based on Ronson’s own experiences. It’s a quirky tale of an extremely avant-garde band with an unpronounceable name (Soronprfbs) whose charismatic lead singer is never seen without a large papier-mâché head. He even showers in it.
The story is told by Jon, a geeky type of limited musical talent who dreams of rock stardom. When he gets the chance to play keyboards for the Soronprfbs, things don’t quite turn out how he expects and he finds himself shut away in a cottage in Ireland with his bandmates, all of them quite mad (they met in a mental health institution). The band are pretty much held hostage and bullied into creating something that might just be quite spectacular by the man with the big head. Jon sees something special in Frank, and has ambitions far beyond the walls of the cottage. But when he misjudges the band’s underlying wishes and sets them on the path to fame and fortune that he alone craves, things start to go a bit titsup.
Fassbender is properly fantastic: there might only be one expression on that enormous head, but somehow he fills those big eyes with emotion – maybe it’s in the shoulders, I don’t know. He makes him a bit sexy too, frankly. I know that’s weird. Maggie Gyllenhall is excellent as his terrifying girlfriend Clara who plays the theremin as if it’s a PMT transmitter, and Domnhall Gleeson gives Jon just the right amount of thrilled terror and feckless ambition.
There’s something gloriously life-affirming about Frank, it’s hilarious and bonkers in equal parts but also full of genuinely touching moments – I can’t deny that there was a tear in my eye at the end.
Go see Frank, you’ll love it. You know you will, you really will.
This was the only film I saw at the London Film Festival that got a standing ovation, after the audience had taken a minute or two to get their breath back. It’s a harsh and unforgiving examination of slavery, a bit like Django Unchained without the laughs.
Steve McQueen’s first two films were about men in the grip of something terrible – be it incarceration or sex addiction – now he has turned his attention to American slavery. This is a bit off piste for him, it feels more movie than art house. And it’s all the better for that – he’s given slavery the film it needed, something that doesn’t distract from the brutal truth with a neat soundtrack and some funny one-liners (not that Django was wrong to do that, it’s a cracking film). McQueen gave a short Q&A after the screening and said he’d wanted to do a slavery film for some time but hadn’t quite found the right story, then his wife tracked down Solomon Northup’s book and he knew immediately he’d found it. And whatever the horrors revealed in 12 Years a Slave, the biggest one of all is that this is someone’s life. It’s that knowledge that makes everything seem a million times worse than when you’ve seen it before.
Chiwetel Ejiofor eats up Solomon Northup’s story and spits it right back out again – he’s a revelation here, his first leading role and one that should pick him up a few major awards. Northup is angry, frustrated, downtrodden but never defeated as the free man who is abducted and sold back into slavery leaving a wife and family behind him. You feel every bit of his frustration and his fury – and his inability to do anything to rescue himself or his fellow slaves. Most notable among these is Lupita Nyong’o (Patsey) who will probably have a few award nominations of her own to contend with. And as for Michael Fassbender – he’s superb here as notorious slave breaker Edwin Epps, an unspeakably cruel man on the very edge of sanity who has taken Patsey as his mistress. In a throng of gentlemanly villains, he’s the one that terrifies the most, maybe because he truly believes he is still somehow a good man. Although Northup’s first owner, Master Ford (creepy Benedict Cumberbatch) is just as disturbing somehow, a slave owner masquerading as a good, caring man but ultimately no better than the rest.
McQueen has done what American cinema couldn’t bear to and looked slavery right in the eye, making a film that doesn’t reveal anything we didn’t know, but puts it in a context that makes it seem much more terrible. There’s a quiet dignity here, in the direction, the screenplay and the cinematography, and the but most of all in the lead performance which will make Ejoifor a name to reckon with come awards season and beyond.