Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 35 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 4.
Our star ratings (0-5): 4
When a man or a woman wrongs another, breaking faith with the Lord, that person incurs guilt and shall confess the sin that has been committed. The person shall make full restitution for the wrong, adding one-fifth to it, and giving it to the one who was wronged.
Director Lenny Abrahamson’s unusual film is based loosely on a story by journalist Jon Ronson about Frank Sidebottom, a.k.a. Chris Sievey, a British comedian who wore a paper mache head and traveled with a band. It conjures up in my mind the film about genius and mediocrity, Milos Forman’s Amadeus—or rather what that film might have been if Salieri had joined a Mozart-led band and then through his low-level talent and desire for popularity had persuaded that genius to make his music more understandable and playable.
Jon (Domnhall Gleeson) works at a cubical by day but aspires to be a songwriter. Everything he sees sets him to compose a song, but usually he gets no further than the first line. Then one day this low-talent keyboard player volunteers to sit in at a gig for a band’s keyboard player when the latter tries to drown himself at the seashore. The band calls itself Soronprfbs, but far more bizarre is its leader Frank (Michael Fassbender) who wears a large head with its painted eyes and mouth. Jon is told that he never takes it off, even in bed or the shower, and thus has to eat mainly a liquid diet. All the devoted band members accept this as a matter of course.
Only Don the manager (Scoot McNairy) welcomes Jon. Frank at first largely ignores him, as does Nana (Carla Azar) the percussionist. The other members are wary, and even hostile. Bass player Baraque (Francois Civil) insults him in French, and theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) scornfully tells him he should leave. She becomes even more hostile, when after weeks of rehearsing at a cabin in the country, Jon works on Frank to strive to become popular. Jon has been sharing on YouTube tapes of some of their music, and they have attracted a following. The music is about as bizarre as the band’s peculiar name, so Jon keeps trying to get Frank to make it a little less so. To Clara’s disgust Jon persuades Frank to enter the band into the SXSW music fest in Austin, Texas. The fact that they have been using Jon’s nest egg to finance their weeks long practice is no doubt a persuasive factor.
The film raises the question of the relationship of madness and creativity: can a person be a genius without being somewhat insane? Jon is a “normal” guy who wants to be creative, but during the retreat they do not use the many songs he offers. This is with good reason. There is a delightful scene in which Frank takes one of Jon’s songs, plays with it by changing some chords here and there, transforming it into something that Jon could never have achieved—or now recognize as his own. This too reminded me of a scene in Amadeus in which Salieri offers at the royal court a little march in honor of Mozart’s arrival. Mozart astounds everyone by playing it back right away, but suggesting a number of alterations. The nice little ditty is changed into a much more complex and pleasing work, much to Salieri’s barely concealed feeling of humiliation.
What happens in the States probably confirms for Clara what she had feared might result from what she regards as Jon’s meddling. Their disastrous gig in Austin is not the end, however, the chastened Jon seeking a measure of atonement, and the healing power of music bringing a touch of harmony to all concerned. This is a dark comedy/drama that leaves viewers with a number of questions, and thus a film not to be missed.
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The little talented Jon joins a band led by Frank, who wears a large paper mache head. Jon's attempt to get Frank to popularize his music leads to disaster.