The music biopic is a strange breed of cinema, and one that isn’t always successful. Gus Van Sant failed to bring to life the tragic story of Kurt Cobain with the boring and self-indulgent Last Days in 2005. The story of Jim Morrison’s life was told perhaps too faithfully by Oliver Stone’s pretentious and often rather tedious The Doors. In fact, the biopic genre tends to throw out quite a lot of stinkers.
The recently released Frank, however, isn’t one of them. In fact, it’s the most bizarre, wonderfully uplifting and gloriously bonkers film to come out of the cinema in quite some time. And if there’s a key to the movie’s many successes, it’s a complete lack of devotion to the source material.
It’s loosely based on the experiences of author, journalist and co-writer Jon Ronson – he played keyboard alongside the real Frank Sidebottom. Yet, Frank also tell its own bizarre tale, based on a collection of real-life characters like Captain Beefheart, Daniel Johnston and, of course, the paper-mache headed maestro himself. What works about the film is its ability to blend hilarity and darkness, allowing it to showcase themes of mental illness to heartbreakingly emotional effect.
It also has some pretty fantastic tunes in it, which are performed by the actual cast of the film – Maggie Gyllenhaal should be especially applauded for mastering the theremin, which is a surprisingly difficult instrument to learn. A pop film needs good music to fill its boots with and Frank brings plenty to the table. Real performances in musical biographies translate to the screen with great efficiency – the 2007 Ian Curtis biopic Control and the 2005 smash hit Walk the Line proved this with their barnstorming real-life musical performances.
It’s a brave, bonkers and tender little film – one that shows that the music biopic, as a genre, need not stick religiously to its source material in order to be a success. The 2007 Bob Dylan biopic, I’m Not There is another example of this strange breed of
true life storytelling. Rather than give a detailed account of the singer/songwriter’s life in typical dramatic fashion, the film instead decided to ‘go off on one’ and give us six different Bob Dylan personas. The end result was a fascinating portrait of a music legend that, in actual fact, didn’t reveal all that much about him. In fact, all that damned film did was make Bob Dylan appear all the more elusive and mysterious.
There are other films like Frank out there which celebrate music in a glorious fashion. However, many of them have undeservedly remained under the radar. No, I’m not talking about Rock of Ages – no one should talk about Rock of Ages,ever. What I’m talking about is a film you probably won’t be familiar with, because nobody went to see it. I’m talking about the2013 film Good Vibrations.
Good Vibrations charts the life of record store owner Terri Hooley – a man who became an icon of the Belfast punk rock scene in the 1970s, after discovering bands such as The Outcasts and The Undertones. Upon discovering these bands, Hooley went on to do everything in his power, despite his own growing financial concerns, to make sure that these bands were heard by the rest of the country. The film goes on to recreate the glorious moment when John Peel played Teenage Kicks twice in a row on his radio show. While the film sticks to its real life roots a lot more so than some of the films mentioned above, it does it in a way that is so joyous and heartfelt that it’s impossible not to well up.
The dangerous and politically-divided backdrop of Belfast works as a character itself within the film, serving as a perfect soup of anger and discontent for a genre as spiky and rebellious as punk rock to boil and bubble in. Like Frank, it is an engaging and moving study of one man’s almost deranged obsession with music. The greatest comparison to these two fantastic films, however, is their completely sincere celebration not only towards the discovery, creation and love of music, but to the absolute nutters who roam the medium as well. I recommend that you go see them both.