UK (2014) Dir. Lenny Abrahamson
Is there a fine line between madness and genius? Is creativity a curse or a blessing? Is being different a good thing or a bad thing? And what price fame? I doubt there is a definitive answer but some food for thought on the matter, allow me to introduce you to Frank.
Co-scripted by British journalist Jon Ronson and loosely based on his own association with the cult act Frank Sidebottom, the creation of the late Chris Sievey, Frank is a purely fictional account into the creative journey an enigmatic musician named Frank (Michael Fassbender) who recruits struggling wannabe songwriter and keyboard player Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson) to join his (unpronounceable) obscurely monikered band Soronprfbs.
Made up of silent drummer Nana (Carla Azar), French guitarist Baraque (François Civil), aggressive theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and manager/producer Don (Scoot McNairy), Jon finds himself thrown into the midst of an eclectic and unique collective with whom he goes on a personal and literal journey in the pursuit of making music and finding fame.
Oh and Frank wears a large papier-mâché head. All the time.
Lenny Abrahamson’s film is something of a touching tribute, a scathing satire and a cautionary look into the issue of mental health. I don’t know if this was the case for Chris Sievey but one can assume it was an important concern for Ronson and Abrahamson to include it in their characterisation of Frank.
While this isn’t a dominant theme of the film it is a looming one that hangs silently in the air largely through the behaviour of everyone – even Jon on occasion as he becomes deeply engrained in the unorthodox world of his eccentric bandmates. Baraque converses only in French while Nana doesn’t speak until near the end; Don is a battle worn man who “wishes he was Frank” but the most interesting is Clara, who takes a violent dislike to Jon, never refusing an opportunity to attack him verbally or physically (pausing briefly when she sees him naked in the Jacuzzi).
There is plenty of humour, largely dark, to be found here found during the recording process of their album and the subtle asides that arise from the most innocuous of situations. The music created could best be described as mix of Captain Beefheart with a more aggressive Frank Zappa with a touch of the freeform insanity of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Jon is the mainstream conscience of the group which doesn’t sit well with the others, except from Frank who embraces Jon’s likeability only to dump his material when it comes to recording!
Meanwhile Jon is updating his few followers on Twitter about the group’s exploits and uploading covertly shot videos to YouTube which sees a new cult being born, that spurs Frank to accept a booking at a US event for the band because people like them. Sadly, when they get to Texas, they discover YouTube views do not make a rabid audience make. With so many volatile and unconventional personalities involved something has to give but is Frank to be the main casualty?
With such disconcerting question marks hovering over the heads of the whole band, it is with some irony that in many ways, outside of Jon, Frank comes across as the sanest one of them all; he at least has a sense of focus of what he wants to achieve even if his methods are off kilter. What raises alarm bells is that, unlike his real life inspiration, Frank never removes his false head and none of the band have seen him without it, nor do they seem concerned to do so, Jon naturally being the exception.
How we are supposed to receive and interpret this eccentric act is part of the film’s beauty – do we look at Frank for being a loony for hiding his face? Do we applaud him for creating something which is eye catching and different? Or can we take this as someone who is bravely sticking two fingers up at the vanity game of being a famous face by obscuring his? After all, it worked for KISS!
This bold subversive move also applies to the film itself by having someone who is riding of the crest of a glorious wave in Michael Fassbender having his money maker obscured. Not only does this alienate his female fans but it lessens the emotional impact of his performance – or so you would think. Through his body language, subtle nuances and understanding of creating a presence, Fassbender convinces the audience that the large comic style head is no longer a distraction or curiosity and the personality beneath it emerges with full force, and proves to be no handicap in engendering sympathy and empathy when required.
Fassbender does carry the work load alone and is ably supported by a very talented cast who bring something personal and unique to their roles, understanding every facet of their characters and their foibles. It’s hard to single anyone out but for the sheer kudos of working against type Maggie Gyllenhaal delights as the always entertaining but almost dislikeable Clara, while Domhnall Gleeson brings some whimsical British charm to the whole mad scenario as Jon.
It’s unfortunate that while the first two acts are blackly amusing, irreverently engaging and often heartbreakingly poignant, the denouement takes us for a trip down melodrama avenue which leaves things on a bittersweet note but just a touch too much schmaltz that feels a little out of place in context with everything that preceded it when something magically ambiguous would have been more appropriate.
Whether you know the real Frank Sidebottom or not, this film will open your eyes and give you a greater appreciation for the struggles of the avant-garde artist in a mainstream world. Frank is deceptively smart film that offers more than it might suggest, leaving a unique lasting impression through it is maverick approach and genuine affection for its subject.