by Matt Levine
Frank is getting plenty of mileage out of its promotional branding as “that movie where the guy wears the giant papier-mâché head”—which is certainly understandable, given the quirky appeal of such a concept. Thankfully, though, the movie ventures into darker, deeper, more powerful territory than this potentially one-joke premise might suggest. The story of a wannabe musician who tags along with an abrasive noise-rock band headed by the perpetually masked “Frank,” the film unrelentingly explores the gray area between artist and audience, not to mention between maverick obscurity and mass appeal. Eighty percent satire with some surprisingly penetrative character study thrown in, Frank is hard to describe but exhilarating to contemplate—one of the better movies about music made in recent memory.
Director: Leonard Abrahamson
Producers: David Barron, Ed Guiney, Stevie Lee, Andrew Lowe
Writers: Jon Ronson, Peter Straughan
Cinematographer: James Mather
Editor: Nathan Nugent
Music: Stephen Rennicks
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Shane O'Brien, Scoot McNairy, Maggie Gyllenhall, François Civil, Carla Azar, Michael Fassbender
Premiere: January 17, 2014 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: August 22, 2014
US Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
The audience’s surrogate is Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a wide-eyed office worker with grandiose dreams of unleashing his musical brilliance upon the world. The only trouble is he can’t write a song to save his life; instead, he professes to embrace his muse on Twitter and Facebook, absurdly tweeting: “Been working on music all day. Now it’s dinner time. #nom nom nom.” Early on, the movie gently pokes fun at Jon’s outsized dreams, though eventually the vast rift between his ambitions and his actual talent will become unexpectedly disastrous. Frank deftly emphasizes Jon’s self-aggrandizing online presence by splaying his tweets and Facebook posts onscreen, conveying how easy it is to inhabit an ideal alter ego for ourselves on such social media platforms.
Jon’s chance to finally play for an “established” band arrives when he witnesses a screaming man sprinting into the ocean in a botched suicide attempt. The man turns out to be the keyboardist for a bizarre ensemble called the Soronprfbs, whose members don’t even know how to pronounce the name. Desperate for a replacement for that night’s dive-bar performance, the Soronprfbs enlist Jon’s help, despite the fact that he can barely tap out chords on a synthesizer. An indescribable mixture of Can’s yelping, nonsensical lyrics, Lightning Bolt’s abrasive wall of noise, and Boris’ haunting drones, the Soronprfbs really do sound like a fresh and disconcerting band—which is all the more impressive considering the actors are actually playing this music onscreen.
It’s at this performance that we (and Jon) first glimpse Frank, the band’s maverick lead singer. His oblong papier-mâché head, illustrated with enormous teal-blue eyes and black, parted hair reminiscent of a Ken doll, belies a warm personality and an infectious glee at performing music. He may be a perfectionist and a musical savant who can improvise gorgeous melodies, but he’s quickly revealed to be one of the band’s more “normal” members. There’s also Don (Scoot McNairy), the band’s promoter, who enjoys sex with mannequins (not just an absurd joke, but a reiteration of the movie’s focus on what constitutes artificial and genuine human behavior); and Clara (Maggie Gyllenhall), a domineering, emotionless knob-twiddler who purports to “control” Frank. Jon and Frank quickly develop a seemingly sincere friendship, especially as Frank tries to coax out the musical genius that he’s convinced lies somewhere within Jon.
The bulk of the movie takes place at a cabin in the lush Irish woods, where the Soronprfbs have holed up to record their first studio album. Some of the funniest gags take place during this lengthy stretch (such as Frank’s tendency to describe his concealed facial expressions aloud), but this is also where the characters’ tumultuous personalities take shape (with the exception of two other French band members who unfortunately act as little more than passive observers). Clara initially seems like a shallow, one-note stereotype of the ice-queen control freak, though she thankfully takes on real depth and tenderness in the film’s last scene. Maybe most impressive about these scenes at the cabin, though, is the delicate funny-sad-surreal balance the film is able to achieve. When Jon lowers his laptop screen to reveal a many-months old beard, it’s a witty sight gag as well as a melancholy example of how drastically he’s changed himself to fit in; and when it’s revealed how many members of the Soronprfbs have committed suicide (or tried to), the theme of an artist’s extreme outsider nature leading to destructive alienation is conveyed with surprising acridity.
The last part of the film takes place at South by Southwest in Austin, whose bookers have been made aware of the Soronprfbs by Jon’s constant YouTube and Twitter updates. This probably sounds like shameless catering to the movie’s intended audience of quirky-music-loving hipsters, but Frank instead takes deadly aim at the fickle modishness and disingenuous “originality” of some modern alternative music. Once they arrive in Austin, Jon encourages Frank to make their music more likeable and palatable, which proves cataclysmic for the band: Frank’s already severe insecurity issues (which are largely responsible for the fake head) paralyze him and drive the other band members away. Jon remains a likeable character—it’s easy to identify with his delusions of fame and grandeur—but one of Frank’s most surprising reversals is the ridicule of its protagonist, who never should have been allowed into this motley (and possibly brilliant) musical crew in the first place.
Some critics have labeled this last part of the film the weakest, but I disagree: this is when Frank takes on real depth and poignancy. It’s hardly a surprise to learn that Frank has a genuine mental illness—how else to describe his compulsion to constantly conceal his appearance?—but the movie’s treatment of his illness is sensitive and understanding. “What happened to him?,” Jon asks Frank's parents out of morbid curiosity. “Nothing happened to him,” responds Frank’s father simply. “He has a mental illness.” The final scene is both cathartic and melancholy, hopeful and merciless—a testament to the power of music as well as a harsh reminder that the creation of art is sometimes better left to the artists.
As Frank, Michael Fassbender paints an unforgettable character both in and out of his papier-mâché head (he is eventually, briefly, unmasked). Both his vulnerability and his genius seem irrefutable—there’s real depth to Frank as both an artist and a man. Gleeson also ably walks a fine line between amiability and self-absorption, and Gyllenhall deserves credit for reversing her character’s impenetrable coldness in the final scene, suddenly and believably exposing her compassion like a raw nerve.
The plot might sound hyperbolic, but Frank is actually based on a real man: the musician Chris Sievey, who performed in a similar papier-mâché head as the showman Frank Sidebottom, member of such 1980s groups as the Oh Blimey Big Band. (Ryan Gilbey’s Sight & Sound review does a great job at recounting Sievey’s legacy.) Co-writer Jon Ronson (who also penned the book and screenplay for The Men Who Stare at Goats) was a keyboardist in the Oh Blimey Big Band for a brief period, and his script for Frank (co-written with Peter Straughan) is something of an oblique, semi-fictionalized biopic of Sievey. The fact that Jon is clearly a surrogate for Ronson—and that he’s the overreaching character largely responsible for the Soronprfbs’ fallout—reveals Ronson’s admiration for artists such as Sievey, the almost impenetrable air of creative fecundity peculiar to idiosyncratic artists. He’s in awe of the creative process, and of the mystifying effect it can have on hardcore fans.
Visually, Frank feels less extraordinary than in its themes and performances. Director Leonard Abrahamson—whose previous films have received limited release in the US—makes the most of his Irish and American scenery, but there are few memorable or creative compositions. One might hope that a story of unbridled originality would take a few more risks in its editing or cinematography. That being said, Frank’s soundtrack is something else: unlike some other films about fictional bands, it really does seem like the Soronprfbs are as unique as the movie makes them out to be. Two songs in particular—the climactic, liberating “I Love You All” and the funny-sweet “Lone Standing Tuft”—are some of the better tunes of the year so far, cinematic or otherwise. In a way, Frank would make a fine double feature with We Are the Best!, the other great music-themed movie of 2014. In that film’s climax, the Swedish trio of aspiring punk-rock girls haven’t yet reached musical proficiency, but that doesn’t stop them from pouring their heart and soul into the noise they unleash. In Frank, conversely, the music is brilliant but the musicians are unstable and emotionally stunted. Creating art is a precarious tug-of-war, capable of euphoric highs and disastrous lows; but both Frank and We Are the Best! convey how vital such creative expression is to the human experience.