I don’t intend to write film reviews on a regular basis, but I’ve been inspired to write one now by a film that I saw at the weekend, called ‘Frank’. It’s a dark, funny and very unusual film, which was inspired by, but not based on, Chris Sievey, a Manchester comedian and musician. Sievey created the character of Frank Sidebottom, for which he wore a rather disconcerting papier mache head. In the film, the character of Frank has a band (as did Frank Sidebottom) but the noise they make is rather harder than the real Frank Sidebottom’s synth-based pop parodies.
For many years now I’ve listened almost exclusively to music by the likes of Haydn, Vivaldi, Handel and Tallis. Partly it’s because this is the music that I love. Partly, it’s because I got bored with contemporary music. It got to the stage where I felt that I wasn’t hearing anything new. Every new band, however far from the mainstream (and I did like them far from the mainstream) sounded as though they were just mixing and matching elements of what had gone before. I couldn’t find anything that was really convincing. Perhaps, then, I imagined the reality was that there had never been anything convincing; I’d simply grown up, musically speaking, and come to see the young people’s simplistic attempts at originality as pretentious and unsuccessful.
But then I was sitting in the cinema on Sunday evening, as the scene in the film, where the band begin a disastrous and prematurely ended set, played. And their mad, chaotic, cacophonous sound whacked me round the head so hard that it sent me back to my youth. Just for a moment I was listening once more to music that was important, portentous; music that made you see that the world isn’t what you think it is. It was just a short piece of music, before the PA blew up and the band set about each other, but it reminded me of something that has been missing for a long time.
The star of the band is not the singer with the frightening false head and a talent for unusual lyrics, but Maggie Gyllenhaal’s crazed, knife-wielding Theremin player. When the new recruit, a geeky and ultimately divisive character, shows an interest in, and approaches the instrument, she takes a swipe at him and snarls, ‘Keep away from my FUCKING Theremin!’
The film led me along, not knowing what might happen next, which of the characters (if any) I should be routing for, not knowing which of the characters, never mind the band itself, would be able to hold it all together and which were sure to self-destruct. It’s largely a film about mental illness. It’s also about the difference between the ability to cope and the inability to cope, which is arguably nothing more than a matter of perception. It said to me that there are people in the world who, when allowed to do things in their own unusual way, are able not just to cope with life, but to excel. But if you push conventionality upon them, force them to operate within the standard, accepted ways, they are liable to fall apart. And I should know, because this is me, albeit in a fortunately rather less extreme version.
All I can say is that if you only see one film this year, you really need to see more films…