Left-of-center musical comedy finds art in the craziest places
Directed by Leonard Abrahamson
Cast: MIchael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Films rarely come more “outsidery” than the quirky, music-minded black comedy Frank. It’s not that the film is out of grasp of the average filmgoer. It’s not some wildly experimental indie. It’s your basic “rise and fall of a would-be rock star” kind of thing—if that rock star were a suicidal introvert who wore a giant papier-mâché head. It is freakishly original, and its love for weirdoes of all stripes shines through in every odd tune, bizarre joke and pop cultural fetish it indulges in.
The film comes to us in a roundabout way from Irish filmmaker Leonard Abrahamson (What Richard Did). The premise is loosely based (very, as it happens) on the character of Frank Sidebottom, a cartoon-headed stage persona of English musician and comedian Chris Sievey (who passed away in 2010). Sievey appeared on a number of British television shows throughout the ’80s and ’90s and was sort of the Manchester equivalent of Max Headroom. Frank borrows the “dude performing in a fake head” thing, and that’s about it.
Frank starts by introducing us to our actual main character, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson, better known as one half of the Weasley twins from the Harry Potter movies). Jon is a wannabe musician stuck in small-town Ireland. He’s desperate to spread his artistic wings, but he just can’t seem to compose a proper tune. (The film’s opening sequence, in which Jon wanders around seeking inspiration from every person and thing he passes, is priceless.) It would seem, right at the outset, our boy Jon is not destined for greatness. But fate intervenes big-time when the van of a touring prog/punk/folk/experimental group pulls up in front of him and disgorges its keyboardist—who promptly goes nuts and tries to drown himself in the ocean. Jon is summarily recruited by the band’s guitarist (Scoot McNairy) and ordered to show up at the next gig.
Oh, and then there’s Frank (Michael Fassbender), the group’s lead singer and artistic guru. He wears a giant, oval cartoon head made out of papier-
Adding to the confusing unreality of it all, it should be noted that this film is cowritten by Peter Straughan and Jon Ronson (who penned The Men Who Stare at Goats). Jon apparently played keyboard in the real Frank Sidebottom’s band. Nevertheless, the characters of “Frank” and “Jon” have very little to do with the real Frank and Jon (who were kind of, sort of made-up characters anyway). Got it? Let’s continue.
Before he even knows what’s happening, Jon has been kidnapped and hustled off to a lakeside cabin where Soronprfbs (relax, no one in the movie can pronounce it either) is going to record its first, groundbreaking album. There’s Jon, of course, on keyboard. There’s Don, the guitarist. A couple of snooty French hipsters are covering bass and drums. There’s Clara (scary and awesome Maggie Gyllenhaal), an attitude-laden theremin player with a taste for antique nightgowns who takes an instant hate-on to Jon. Oh, and then there’s Frank (Michael Fassbender), the group’s lead singer and artistic guru. He wears a giant, oval cartoon head made out of papier-mâché. He never takes it off. Not even in the shower.
Frank is completely and totally enamored with weirdoes and outsiders. And it finds the perfect patron saint in its titular character.
At first it’s clear Jon doesn’t belong in this madhouse of simmering anger and neuroses. But he learns to adjust. Frank’s looney methods of musical experimentation rub off on Jon, and he’s soon happily noodling away with the band. Eighteen months of tapping on tree trunks later, and they’re almost ready to begin recording. Eventually fed up with the go-nowhere approach, Jon secretly signs the group up for a gig at the famous SXSW music festival in Austin. The other members of Soronprfbs are leery (popularity, money and fame being anathemas to true art), but Frank really does like the idea of getting his music in front of an actual audience.
And so, the band sets out on the road to Texas. (The American portions of the film were shot right here in New Mexico, subbing for Austin as well as the lovely, mountainous plains of Kansas.) The goal (or at least the goal Jon is steering his bandmates toward) is to claim the adulation they are so rightly due at the coolest, hippest music showcase on Earth. As you can probably guess, it doesn’t go quite the way they plan.
As I said at the offset, Frank is completely and totally enamored with weirdoes and outsiders. And it finds the perfect patron saint in its titular character. Fassbender, a hugely talented actor who has demonstrated his range in films from X-Men: First Class to Shame, goes balls deep here. There aren’t a lot of actors who would willingly bury themselves beneath a cartoonish mask for an entire film—certainly not ones as good looking as Fassbender. But he’s incredible here. Fassbender infuses his unique character with a monumental number of quirks and yet still finds the ability to project great charisma from behind a pair of painted-on eyeballs.
One of the central questions here is, “How crazy is Frank?” Don claims Frank is the sanest guy he’s ever met. But considering they met in a mental institution, Don might not be the best judge. There’s certainly something to be said for crazy people of talent, and Frank pillages a lot of its mythology from performers like Roky Erickson, Frank Zappa, Daniel Johnston and Captain Beefheart. The surprise, however, is that beneath its droll wit, Frank has some serious things to say about mental illness, personal dreams and that fickle bitch known as fame (particularly in this post-Twitter world). It’s a comedy, but it’s not a flippant one by any means. Frank is weird, it’s occasionally wonderful, and it’s ripe as hell for cult worship.
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