The kooky, far-out tale of musical genius Frank Sidebottom – the laconic prodigy who hides under a papier-mâché head – is in cinemas today. We're celebrating the musical caper with Frank Day, an in-depth look at how the comic persona and frontman of The Freshies made it to the big screen.
Jon Ronson was the entertainment manager for the Student's Union at the Polytechnic of Central London when he got a call from the manager of the comedian/musician, Chris Sievey. He desperately needed a keyboard player for a gig that night. Did Ronson know anyone? The journalism student said he played keyboards and was immediately drafted in to help back Sievey's surreal, papier-mâché-headed alter ego, Frank Sidebottom. Ronson then played with the band for three years. He has told the true story of his experiences in an e-book, Frank, and a one-man show. The film Frank, co-written by Ronson and Peter Straughan, now brings the dumb luck tale and spirit of Sievey/Sidebottom to the screen in fictional form.
You sold the rights to your book The Men Who Stare at Goats. Did you want to be more involved with Frank?
Jon Ronson: Well you definitely relinquish power at some point, whether you've just sold the books or you've written the screenplay, too. When they started filming Frank, I was as uninvolved as I was with The Men Who Stare at Goats. Unless you're a writer-director, that's always going to happen. So, actually, the two situations were quite similar, in a way.
Some Frank Sidebottom fans online have been angered by Fassbender's American accent, and even his muscles. Why didn't you do a straight biopic?
Jon Ronson: The first reason was the fact that Twenty-Four Hour Party People had just come out when I first started writing this film with Peter, and I didn't want to compete with that. So I never wanted to write a Manchester film because Twenty-Four Hour Party People was exactly the film I would have wanted to have written.
And then Chris made it clear to me that he didn't really want there to be a Chris Sievey character in there. He was quite hedonistic, and I don't think he wanted that on screen. I don't think he would have minded, but I don't think he wanted it.
And then my big reason, I think, was I didn't want to write about comedy and music. I thought there was so much more to lose, so much more narrative possibilities, if the band took themselves incredibly seriously and cared, and for that to happen the music couldn't be Frank Sidebottom's music. Those were the main reasons, I think.
“I was called in at the last minute because their keyboard player had dropped out for some mysterious reason. So I turned up at the sound-check and there was nobody there but his own band, and he was wearing the head!”
You appear to have wanted to avoid the idea that mental illness and creativity are linked in Frank.
Jon Ronson: Peter felt really strongly that he didn't want the film to perpetuate this notion that the mentally ill were somehow awesome. That came mainly from him, but I totally understood what he meant when he said it. So, even if there is a relationship between mental illness and creativity, none of us wanted our film to say it.
When you were drafted in to play keyboards in Chris Sievey/Frank Sidebottom's band by his manager, did you meet Chris or Frank first?
Jon Ronson: Frank. I was called in at the last minute because their keyboard player had dropped out for some mysterious reason. So I turned up at the sound-check and Chris was there as Frank. There was nobody there but his own band, and he was wearing the head! That was kind of a breathtaking moment.”
“I never wanted to write a Manchester film because Twenty-Four Hour Party People was exactly the film I would have wanted to have written”
Was there an element of escapism to it?
Jon Ronson: Whenever I think about that question, I imagine Mark Radcliffe (another of the band's keyboard players) hovering over my shoulder and saying, 'It was just an act. Don't fucking over-psychoanalyse it.' But I like the idea of over-psychoanalysing it and thinking it was like a safe space. That's sort of what I think.
Did you like one of the personalities more than the other?
Jon Ronson: Frank was quite hard work in long stretches. Chris was an interesting mix of people. On one hand he was quiet and unassuming - There was this time when these girls broke into the dressing room and said, 'We're not going to leave until the real Frank reveals himself.' And they went around the room saying, 'It's you, isn't it?' and they didn't say it to Chris – but then on the other he was quite hedonistic and quite chaotic.
What was being on the road with the band like?
Jon Ronson: I loved it. Well, I loved it until he decided to go more mainstream and then he brought in these professional musicians, one of whom, the bass player, took this completely baffling dislike to me. The old band had a kind of avant-garde loucheness to them, and then the new band I felt like I was on a college sports team. But in the early days it was brilliant. We'd turn up at venues like the Bury Met or the Sheffield Leadmill and there were 500 people. It was bliss.
Who were the influences on the music in the film? I told Michael Fassbender I thought he sounded like Jim Morrrison at the start of the final song, "I Love You All".
Jon Ronson: Yeah, I think there's a bit of Jim Morrison. Did he say Iggy Pop as well?
Jon Ronson: Oh, because I wondered Iggy Pop. We really had the easy option, me and Peter, because we just said, 'The music has to be beautiful and ridiculous at the same time.' And then in meetings I would say I wanted it to be serious. So, serious, beautiful and ridiculous. Which is a fuck of a lot easier to write than it is to enact. So, in my head, the influences were actually very different from what they ended up being. For me it was Daniel Johnston, Captain Beefheart, The Shaggs. Daniel Johnston more than anybody. At one point we asked Daniel Johnston to write some songs for the film. In the end we went with his childhood friend, Stephen Rennicks, who did a really incredibly good job. "I Love You All" is brilliant. Brilliant!
Frank is in cinemas today