How to Be an Outsider Artist: The Weird Beauty of Jon Ronson’s ‘Frank’

If you have any pre-awareness of the film Frank, opening in August, after a Sundance premiere and a screening at South by Southwest that garnered both raves and befuddled reviews, it’s probably this: it’s the movie where Michael Fassbender wears a giant fake papier maché head.

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I mean, it’s a weird movie. But what’s even crazier is that Frank is a fictionalized story based on a real person, Frank Sidebottom, aka Chris Sievey, an outsider artist from England. In one of those beautiful coincidences, writer Jon Ronson was in Sivey’s band in the early ’80s. Ronson, a frequent Guardian contributor, is probably best known as the endlessly curious and super-funny author of such bestsellers as The Psychopath Test and The Men That Stare at Goats. He wrote the screenplay for Frank, as well as a lengthy essay about his life with the Frank Sidebottom Oh Blimey Big Band, published in hardcover last week, called Frank: The True Story That Inspired the Movie. It may be one of the best things I’ve read about the urge to make art — because it’s not about the rise and fall of some band, per se. It’s mostly mucking about in failure and on the sidelines. It’s touching in its very human qualities.

It’s a short piece that begins with the writer getting a call from his old friend Frank Sidebottom. They hadn’t spoken in 15 years, but now that Ronson wrote regularly for The Guardian, was there any chance that he could help with the comeback? From there, Ronson recalls what it was like to be in Frank’s band, how he fell into it as an aimless college kid, and the audience’s response to what Frank was doing. “And in the space of that first song… the audience veered from fevered anticipation into puzzlement into hoping we were playing a weird joke on them into realizing with regret that we were not.” Everyone else in Frank’s orbit got very, very famous. But what Frank was dealing with was harder — there was some darkness that was hard to pinpoint, something that maybe bore some resemblance to other stories of great eccentric musicians, from Daniel Johnston to The Shaggs.

There’s an admirable sensitivity to this essay, yet Ronson is still dryly funny throughout. (A sample of his youthful attempts at songwriting: “But you’re the special ones! With pain but hope in your eyes/Drunk tramps”). Art and music keeps us going as human beings, even when the results remain on the margins, received like a joke half-told. It sounds impossible, but Ronson makes something moving out of the all-too-true story of a man who put a papier maché head over his own human head, so that he could become someone else, so that he could be someone larger than life.