Genius is hell, both for the blessed and those stuck in the shadows, cursed to spend a lifetime smashing their heads against the glass. In its presence we find ourselves dwarfed and dumb, like moths. We know we’re before brilliance we can’t comprehend — and we know we’ll never have it, no matter how hard we try.
In England in the ’80s, there was a pop musician named Frank Sidebottom, who became less famous for his fuzzy covers of hits than the giant mask he wore while he sang, an 18-inch fiberglass globe with round eyes, big lips, and a prim side part. He wasn’t a genius. He was a novelty, and perhaps a bit of a nut. Like so many gag acts from that decade, Frank Sidebottom and his band, The Freshies, were as much performance artists as rockers — Frank himself once said that his favorite show was for 15 bored people who wound up ignoring him to play with a ball.
British journalist Jon Ronson (the author of the nonfiction must-reads Them, The Psychopath Test, and The Men Who Stare at Goats), played keyboard for The Freshies, admitting that the only requirements were the ability to finger C, F, and G, and the patience to always call the man in the mask “Frank.” (When Frank took it off, he reverted to Chris Sievey.) The masterstroke of Frank, the film Ronson 15 years later co-wrote with Peter Straughan and set in the present day, is that this time the man in the mask is a modern Mozart. And, unsparingly, Ronson has written himself as the jealous goober — the band’s ignorant Iago — who risks everything, with the delusion that he’s the smart one.
In his first gig with Soronprfbs — the unpronounceable name is the first clue that Frank has no aspirations of radio airtime — Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) shows up looking like a modern rock star in a hoodie and T-shirt. He finally has a chance to look as cool as the dudes whose albums line the shelves of his room — and he’s instantly outclassed by the band: two French snobs (Carla Azar and François Civil), a theramin-pounding banshee (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and Frank (Michael Fassbender), the Easter Island god of the stage, who has paired his giant head with a scuba suit.
Frank never takes off the head. But how does he eat, brush his teeth, or shave, Jon asks? Replies Soronprfbs’ manager (Scoot McNairy), “You’re just going to have to go with this.” And so we do. Director Lenny Abrahamson frames the film as a millennial myth, sealing the band away in a remote cabin in Ireland to record its first album, which sounds like whale noises, acid freak-outs, and the B-52s. (Composer Stephen Rennicks may be a genius himself.) Isolated among the trees, Frank walks tall — all Fassbender has to act with is his spine — and unnerves Jon with his ability to compose a song as easily as breathing. An off-the-cuff ode to a strand of fabric becomes a ditty worthy of prime Paul McCartney. He’s no gimmick — he just looks like one — and like Jon, we’re torn between wanting to share his gifts with the world and the looming fear that the world has become so cynical that it will write him off as a joke.
Wrested from the forest and steered at Jon’s request to the streets of Austin’s SXSW festival, Frank looks smaller and stupider — no better than the twee ukelele starlets, and a whole lot less accessible. The real-world detour is grating, as are Jon’s frequent tweets about the band, but that they cheapen the alienness of the film’s first half is kind of the point. As much as we might wish they weren’t, our brains are aligned with the small-minded and corruptible Jon: Our culture has so merged music and commerce that we can’t be in the thrall of splendor without wondering how to market it. Even Frank himself falls sway to fame, muttering about YouTube, which he calls “secret camera,” as if it’s a mystifying cargo cult. Only Gyllenhaal’s angry art-rock girl is aware of the fragility of his mental health: Frank doesn’t wear the head because he can, he wears the head because he must.
Look closely at Frank’s mask and you’ll spot two plaster bandages by his nose, a hint at a life that’s taken some lumps. Study Fassbender’s limbs and see one of the best physical performances of the decade. His face never changes, but he has visible soul. In small movements — the twitch of a hand, a wobble under a door frame, a beer, and straw held uselessly by his painted mouth — Fassbender gives us glimpses of what Frank’s isolating genius has cost him. Would we, too, sacrifice normal pleasures for a chance at eternal greatness? Or would we rather suffer alongside Jon, cursed with the heart-melting torture of knowing that the gods of music will never love us in return?