At the New Zealand International Film Festival: two pop rock odysseys in the key of happy-mad-sad.
A surreal comic work about creative genius vs. madness, Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank wears its more serious undertones lightly, making for engaging left-of-mainstream viewing in a mode reminiscent of Aki Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America. The film takes its title and main visual conceit from cult Mancunian entertainment persona Frank Sidebottom, played by the late British performer Chris Sievey. Both Franks are notable for their (near identical) oversized cartoon-style full head masks and their musical ambitions, but that is where the similarities end. Writer Jon Ronson sources at least the beginnings of the main character, also called Jon (an excellent performance by Domhnall Gleeson), from his own experience: a random music enthusiast brought into a band at the last minute to replace a keyboardist suffering a breakdown. (Ronson stumbled into the role of erstwhile keyboardist in Sidebottom’s ‘Oh Blimey Big Band’ in the 1980s by such a method.) Agreeing to help out with what he believes to be a couple of gigs, Jon finds himself completely enveloped in a churning maelstrom of music and madness. Feeling somewhat out of place, he keeps himself sane by chronicling the Soronprfbs’ (the band) progress via social media and ends up creating a low level buzz for the group whose oddity and mystique see them invited to play a show at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. Once the others realise what he’s been doing with his laptop and spare time, Jon is positioned further at odds with all of the band members, except for their masked leader Frank who alone seems to see any musical value in him or his ambitions.
Frank skirts its way around issues of identity, celebrity at the cost of compromise, and the prefabricated nature of pop-cultural myth making without falling afoul of an overly contrived sense itself. Which is a little strange considering the entire affair is roundly tongue-in-cheek. A lot of credit should go to the central performances and natural chemistry of Gleeson as Jon, Maggie Gyllenhaal as avant-garde misanthrope Clara, and Michael Fassbender—eschewing his mild overexposure via enclosure in a giant plastic head—in the title role of mythic minstrel Frank. Having the actors perform the music for the film as the band also adds significantly to the overall tone of the film and the believable chemistry the characters develop. Any fears of a one trick pony based on a gimmicky premise are quickly dispelled; Ronson, Abrahamson, and co. have effectively utilised an arresting real life jumping off point to develop an intriguing story of their own conception.
Likewise utilising the musical performance skills of its cast, Stuart Murdoch’s feature debut God Help the Girl is cinematic candy floss spun out of sugar syrup and melancholy. A story of creative endeavour as psychotherapy, Murdoch’s film shares several similar themes and ideas with Frank but diverges greatly in tone and story. Tonally, God Help the Girl mirrors the music of its auteur Murdoch who will be known to many as the creative engine behind Scottish ‘wistful indie-pop’ group Belle and Sebastian. In terms of story, the film follows its central character Eve (an appropriately self-conscious Emily Browning, wisely cast as an Australian ex-pat rather than forcing an unnecessary accent out of her) as she walks a long, crooked track toward wellness over the span of a Scottish summer. Crossing paths with mild mannered musician James (Olly Alexander from Mike Newell’s 2012 rendition of Great Expectations) and his young music student Cass (Hannah Murray of Game of Thrones notoriety as Craster’s escapee daughter Gilly), Eve forms a band and literally sings and dances her way through her issues and out the other end of the film.
If the film feels a little light and knowing, it is at the very least an enjoyable meander and the central trio share excellent hipsterly-awkward chemistry. The film acquires an extra dimension of interest as part of an overarching creative endeavour: God Help the Girl starting life as a musical project/band created by Murdoch (later joined by primary vocalist collaborator Catherine Ireton) with a self-titled album released in 2009. The cinematic and musical iterations of the project are intimately fused: the album essentially singing the plot of a movie which is bathed in the music of its creators. In the film, Murdoch and co. utilise a mix of God Help the Girl band recordings, Belle and Sebastian tracks, and live performances by the cast. This live facet—though not without its challenges such as Hannah Murray being vocally under-gunned for the part—brings a pleasing immediacy to proceedings, tempering the film’s saccharine tendencies in a similar way to the performances in John Carney’s Once, though here mixed with a Björk styled theatricality (think the song and dance numbers in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark). Despite its rough edges and occasionally precious feeling, God Help the Girl is a fresher, more compelling musical than the usual stage adaptation and perfectly encapsulates that exquisite Belle and Sebastian signature blend of happy-sad.