There is a post-film credits dedication to “outsider artists” and, to fully enjoy this film, you may need to have an appreciation of, or at very least tolerance for, leftfield music. Based on Jon Ronson’s experience as keyboard player in Frank Sidebottom’s Oh Blimey Band, the title character is an amalgam of Sidebottom (particularly the look), Captain Beefheart (the difficult recording process), and Daniel Johnston (an artist with whom I’m not familiar – yet) but this is not a biopic, apparently to the dismay of many Sidebottom fans, aghast at the transformation from a Northern UK suburban oddball to a more intense US artiste. Nontheless, this is an enormously enjoyable, funny and moving account of what it means to be an artistic creative and, perhaps as importantly, what it does not.
As the story opens, the Jon Ronson cypher Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is wandering through a pleasant English seaside town, attempting to find inspiration to write songs, though his lyrics are boring and his tunes either terrible or become remembered tunes from other people. While on his lunchbreak from a humdrum office job, he sees the rescue of a man losing his mind and trying to drown himself. This person is (or was) a keyboard player for a band Jon had seen was due to play that evening and, seeing an opportunity, Jon volunteers that he is a keyboardist and finds himself booked to play with the unpronouncable “Soronprfbs”, not yet realising that losing your mind is a recurring pattern amongst Frank’s keyboardists.
This seems to be an epiphany for Jon, as he plays, utterly unpracticed, with the off-the-wall intense band and their papier-mâché headed front man, Frank (Michael Fassbender). The gig is cut short by technical failure and Jon’s chance seems to have gone when he is contacted by the band; Frank wants him to go to Ireland with them for “a thing”. Thinking this is a gig, Jon drops everything and goes but finds himself blowing his inherited savings and spending a year of his life in a cottage in rural Ireland painstakingly recording an avant-garde album with Frank, and competing for Frank’s approval with icily sexy theremin player, Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
This being set in present day, there are plenty of jokes around the modern music scene, including twitter, blogging and SXSW, but the core of the movie is still about that creative process and, while never stopping being funny, it is also thoughtful and moving. My film of the year so far, & I’m eagerly looking forward to a soundtrack album!