This is Frank. He’s the lead singer of the band Soronprfbs. He’s played by Michael Fassbender in the film of the same name. And he’s based on an actual person (or character – depending on how you see things).
A man who never takes off a papier-mâché head is a situation that seems made for the big screen, especially when that same man lives his life in the spotlight (rather than staying the shadows). Fassbender’s Frank in Frank is based on the real-life creation of comedian and musician Chris Sievey - Frank Sidebottom. While both Franks are aspiring musicians, they attempt to capture success in very different ways.
That huge, comical papier-mâché head is undoubtedly going to grab attention, but both Fassbender’s Frank and Sidebottom are not intended to be about the image of Frank – they are about Frank’s unwavering need to create. Sidebottom quickly became the main feature of Sievey’s act and Fassbender’s Frank seems to find inspiration in everything around him.
The film is told from the perspective of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) who is asked to play only a few notes on a keyboard with the Soronprfbs moments before they are to hit the stage. Like Frank, Jon is also based on an actual person, Jon Ronson, who was also asked to fill in when Sidebottom’s keyboardist couldn’t make a gig with the only requirement being, “Can you play C, F and G?”
Ronson recently wrote about his experience with Sidebottom for The Guardian, explaining that Sidebottom truly was his own person. “The moment the head is placed the change occurs. Not merely a change in attitude or outlook but a journey from one person to the other. I completely believe that Chris was born as two people.”
Sievey was a member of The Freshies and created Sidebottom to be a comical fan of the band (combining Sievey’s musical and comedic talents into one), but Sidebottom’s popularity soon outweighed that of the band and Sievey decided to focus on Sidebottom as a character (rather than just a punch line). Sidebottom quickly hit the road performing shows of his own and went so far as to have his own comic strip and his own variety show, Frank Sidebottom’s Fantastic Shed Show.
Where Sidebottom had pop star aspirations, Fassbender’s Frank approaches music from a slightly more avante garde perspective, preferring to create his own musical notes and his own instruments to play those notes on. But for each, music is no laughing matter. Sidebottom would have a bit of comedic fun when defending his art (“Who’s concert is this??”) while Fassbender infuses enough charm and passion into Frank to cause Jon to believe Soronprfbs are the next big thing. Sidebottom may not have insisted on reinventing music from the ground up, but his music (while catchy) was always a bit odd. But he played it with such confidence and excitement that you cannot help but find yourself sucked into the performance.
And that is what makes both versions of Frank so compelling. The comical head grabs your attention, but it is the real passion and drive of the person underneath it that keep you wanting to see more.
In our review of Frank, Jack noted that there may be something deeper (and possibly darker) going on underneath Frank’s mask and it seems this struggle to express oneself is something Sievey’s Sidebottom dealt with as well. Ronson recalled opening for the popular boy band, Bros, at Wembley, a gig that could have helped make Frank Sidebottom a household name, but one which Sidebottom decided to purposely tank instead.
Frank is odd, you understand that at first glance. That’s the point, but it’s also a surface level of who Frank is. Sidebottom made some fun music (with two of his tracks even hitting the top of the charts in the UK), but his music had a sense of childlike whimsy that never really fit the image of a grown man (even if that man happens to have a large papier-mâché head). But when Sidebottom tried to become a more “serious” musician, adding new musicians into the band and playing more “mainstream” songs, the magic that had made Frank Sidebottom so popular was gone.
Sometimes the strangest combinations actually work, but the key is to have real passion behind them. Sievey never considered Frank Sidebottom a joke and that shone through every performance he gave, whether on stage or on screen, as Frank Sidebottom. The key to Fassbender’s Frank (and what makes him so compelling to watch) is he embraces this emotion and creates a charming, likable, talented musician… who just happens to wear a silly, oversized head with big eyes and a nondescript facial expression.
In the end, Sidebottom is not the only musician to use an alter ego on stage (see: Gorillaz, David Bowie‘s Ziggy Stardust, and Garth Brook’s Chris Gaines) and it is this idea of musicians who use alter egos to help express themselves that makes up the true nature of all iterations of Frank.