Culture & Conversation

How to get a head in the cinema business

Michael Fassbender as Frank. No, really. Michael Fassbender.

Michael Fassbender as Frank. No, really. Michael Fassbender.

Frank (dir. Lenny Abrahamson) Dollar Cinema to Dec 4.

In what kind of universe does a new hugely-acclaimed comedy starring Michael Fassbender fail to get a release at any of the main Montreal cinemas? Possibly the kind of universe where Fassbender’s bankable good looks are hidden throughout in a big papier-maché head, and where his character is based on a daft comedy music act from a minor Manchester suburb. Possibly, also, the kind of universe where distributors are too timorous to take a chance on something so bafflingly, so audaciously indefinable.

Luckily, those intrepid folks at Dollar Cinema – the cheap-as-chips miniplex launched by Bernie Gurberg in 2004 – have no such qualms. Lennie Abrahamson’s Frank has been chosen to inaugurate their Marquee CineSpotlight, a regular event offering first-run showings of otherwise neglected films, all for $5 a pop (regular screenings will set you back $2.50, everything on the concession stand $1).

Anybody who has ventured into the Dollar Cinema, or even managed to find it in the dilapidated depths of the Décarie Square shopping mall, will know that part of the deal of seeing the latest releases for chump change is that the filmgoing experience is going to be as basic as you can get. On the night I caught Frank – admittedly a slow Tuesday –  there were no ads, no trailers, no pre-show music. Patrons wandered in and out as though they’d got the place mixed up with the nearby Dollarama. One corner of the cavernous main screening room seemed to be doubling as a storage space for all kinds of junk, in the middle of which an old lady slept soundly, as if she’d been there for days. It was like stumbling into a glitterdome in one of David Lynch’s more surreal back-of-beyonds. Which is why it arguably makes it the ideal place to see something like Frank, a genuinely weird and wonderful film in which shabby parochialism clashes with the promise of glitzy rock stardom.

It’s loosely based on an especially bizarre chapter in the life of British gonzo journalist Jon Ronson, (whose book The Secret Rulers of the World served as the source material for the film The Men Who Stare at Goats). In the late-eighties, Ronson found himself playing keyboards in a band fronted by Frank Sidebottom, he of the giant papier-maché head, and who sang pop standards in a high-pitched Mancunian twang. Sidebottom’s alter ego Chris Sievey died in 2010, and Ronson, keen to write a screenplay of his experiences but uneasy about exploiting the real Sievey, used him as a jumping off point for a wholly invented story. And so this Frank is a tortured American musician who hides from reality inside that makeshift head of his, providing a fixed expressionless centre against which his fellow band members collide, with sometimes hilarious, sometimes potentially deadly results.

Fassbender makes up for his lack of screen face-time with a manic physicality and beautifully delivered lines that sometimes provide a running commentary on what’s going on inside the mask (“flattered grin followed by bashful half smile”). Domhnall Gleeson plays Ronson’s stand-in, Jon, a gauche wannabe who finds that joining The Soronprfbs – as Frank’s band is unpronouncably called – plunges him into a crazy state of confinement from which even Twitter can’t save him. There’s also wonderfully scary support from Maggie Gyllenhaal as Frank’s theramin-playing partner, a kind of Nico-esque ice maiden with Yoko-ish destructive tendencies.

But does the story actually get to make a serious point or is it all simply a madcap exercise in quirky silliness? Does Fassbender ever take off that head during the film’s 82 minute playing time? And is Frank really a musical genius or is he just a legend in his own big false head? If you want to find out, you’re going have to get yourself along to Dollar Cinema before the end of next week. It’s well worth the trip. Just try not to wake up the old lady with your laughing.

Frank plays at Dollar Cinema until Dec 4. Information about this and future screenings in the Marquee CineSpotlight series can be found here, or by calling 514 739 0536

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Jim Burke is a playwright and arts journalist originally from England, now resident in Montreal. Amongst his plays are Cornered and an adaptation of Moby Dick. He has written plays for BBC radio. In England, he was Theatre Editor for the arts and lifestyle magazine City Life. Jim currently teaches creative writing at Dawson College’s Centre For Training and Development.


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