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Film Review: Frank

Frank (2014; Directed by Lenny Abrahamson)

Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is not terribly special, but he wants to be. Living with his parents as a young adult in a non-descript English town, he strolls by the seaside on his way home from his cubicle job, looking for musical inspiration and composing song snippets in his head (“Hey, lady in the red coat, whatcha doing with that bag?”). Inevitably, though, despite his passionate love of music, his dreams of songwriting, and all the instruments and composition technology that he owns, Jon’s songs are either pathetically bad or rip-offs of other artists. He tweets hopefully about one day finding his muse, but his miniscule Twitter follower count (14) also appears onscreen as a pitiless rebuke.

One day on the beach, Jon witnesses a man ranting and raving in the surf before being carted off in an ambulance. He’s the keyboard player in an indie rock band with the unpronouncable name of the Soronprfbs who are playing a local bar that night, and a half-friendly member of the group named Don (Scoot McNairy) asks Jon to play with them when the latter tells him that he plays the same instrument. The gig dissolves into disaster almost immediately, but not before Jon has attracted the notice of the group’s frontman Frank (Michael Fassbender).

Frank is the enigmatic left-field genius who keeps the marginal, penniless group together, despite a laundry list of idiosyncratic quirks, habits, and practices that is most definitely topped by the oversized papiermâché head that he wears over his own skull at all times (he doesn’t even take it off in the shower, as Jon discovers at one point). So when Frank tells his band that they ought to invite the unassuming guy who played keyboards for them for half a song to join them on an isolated Irish farm to make an album, their objections are moot.

The enthusiastic Jon very quickly discovers that living his musician’s dream with Frank and the Soronprfbs is not the romantic fantasy of creativity and fame that he imagined. For one, every member of the band has a past (and often a present) of mental illness: Don, who met Frank in a mental institution, can only be sexually satisfied by mannequins, Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is implacably hostile (“Don’t touch my fucking theremin!”), and the rhythm section either speaks French (François Civil) or not at all (Carla Azar). Compared to this rogue’s gallery of misfits, their leader in the big inscrutable head-mask seems relatively well-adjusted.

The recording session stretches bizarrely on, exhausting the band’s meager funds and Jon’s contribution of his inherited nest egg. The cornucopia of oddball details is dizzying, as they record wilderness sounds and bendy straws, drill themselves with invented exercises, craft new instruments, and rehearse and jam endlessly, sometimes while Frank exhorts them to pretend to be birds (“Clara, the owl. Night hunter, silent killer”). Jon documents the process on social media, and his blog hits, Twitter followers, and YouTube counts grow gradually, convincing him that their eventual album could become popular. He arranges a showcase set at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas that will either make Frank and his band or, more likely, break them all entirely.

Frank was directed by Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson from a screenplay by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan. Ronson based it on his experiences in Northern English comedian Chris Sievey’s band in the late 1980s and early 1990s, at the height of the popularity of Sievey’s cult Frank Sidebottom character, the basis for the design of this Frank’s head if not for much else of his personality or backstory. Sievey’s mask was the hook of a comedy act, but the one that Fassbender wears (and somehow manages to act brilliantly behind) is a metaphor for the performing artist’s simultaneous projection and protection of identity. The artist must reveal much of what is purportedly in their soul while remaining at a healthy distance from their art’s psychological implications; he must appear to give nearly all he has to the world while holding back enough to suggest unsounded depths and wellsprings of tantalizing mystery. The mask is Frank’s stage persona, but he is almost never onstage and yet never drops the persona.

Abrahamson’s film, a sort of outsider riff on This is Spinal Tap for the millenial hipster subculture, is a sharply absurdist and frequently hilarious satire of indie culture’s indulgent meta-embrace of creative expression for its own sake, as well as a dismantling of the bohemian ideal of artistic genesis as an outlet for transference of suffering and turmoil. Jon endures the flowering madness of the quixotic recording session because he believes that the deprivation, the frustration, the encroaching penury, and the hostility from Clara (who threatens to stab him pretty regularly) will release his inner songwriter as such circumstances have, apparently, inspired Frank.

The irony is that Frank is inspired by everything (including fingertips flicking toothbrushes, which captivate him as the band records their sounds) and yet nothing. His genius is innate, ineffable, unknowable; it is not the product of circumstances (Frank hails from a stable all-American home in the symbolically-charged town of Bluff City, Kansas that is not unlike Jon’s suburban “box”) but of a particular and sometimes distressing mental state. Frank does not dispel the long-standing and unshakeable myth of the intimate connection between mental disquiet and artistic genius, but it contextualizes that myth, making it seem less accessible or romantic.

Frank’s mask does finally come off, and he’s physically and emotionally scarred by it, but his musical ability does not desert him. If anything, it proves to have been a hindrance to his ability to connect with an audience, as Fassbender’s tremendous performance in a concluding band reunion demonstrates. Frank tells Jon at one point that directness and honesty is best, that no one should hide anything from one another. That he says so from behind his fake head, his ever-present artifice, is an irony not lost on Abrahamson, nor on his quirky, funny, subversively brilliant comedy film. It is, in its own peculiar way, quite special.

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Categories: Film, Music, Reviews
  1. December 30, 2014 at 4:23 pm

    Nice review!

  1. January 1, 2015 at 11:01 am
  2. January 2, 2015 at 3:09 pm

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