Published on August 21st, 2014 | by Craig Silliphant0
Frank puts one of the world’s hottest actors behind a giant Frank Sidebottom mask in a clever, funny story about fame, art, and mental illness.
In director Lenny Abrahamson’s latest, Frank, Domhnall Gleeson is Jon, an inexperienced musician who is thrust into the life of a strange indie band. Michael Fassbender plays the title character, a quirky and mysterious musician who never takes off the big, fake head that he wears over his own. After they meet, Jon asks the type of questions about the mask that the audience is asking themselves, like, “How does he eat?”
“Jon, you’re just going to have to go with this,” replies bandmate Don, signaling to the audience in a brilliant way that you need to go with the story, and not focus too much on the logistics of a man that never takes off his fake head. The movie doesn’t ignore the logistics from there, in fact, it plays it for some great comedy and pathos, but it’s a clever way to bend the fourth wall and ask the audience to suspend some disbelief.
Jon is cut from a different cloth than the rest of the band, a suburban dweeb who lives with mum and dad and wants to be a musician, but hasn’t seen enough in life to hone his songwriting chops. When the keyboard player for a band passing through town (the hilariously named Soronprfbs) goes off the deep end, the band invites Jon to join. He is ushered into a world that exists under the spell of the enigmatic, head-wearing frontman Frank, whom the others consider a musical genius. Some band members accept Jon, but Clara, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, are jealous of Frank’s affection towards him. As they hole up in a cabin and put together their latest album, Jon begins to catalogue their experiences via platforms like Twitter and YouTube, gaining the band a following of sorts.
The film kicks off in good order, then slows a bit as they spend awhile in the cabin; in a more straight-forward Hollywood movie, this might be a disconcerting pacing issue. However, here it proves the old axiom about learning the rules (of screenwriting, in this case) before you can break them. The pacing is Frank personified; it works at its own tempo, or, marches to the beat of its own drummer to borrow an apt cliché. In the moment, it feels like the movie doesn’t have enough momentum, or enough happening, but once it steps out of that moment, it makes complete sense. It helps put us in their headspace (pardon the pun), and gives us time to feel the camaraderie of creation. As a musician, I can tell you it’s true — playing in a band, even with people you hate, can bring you together, at least until the last note of a song has rung out. Soronprfbs lock themselves in a cabin and create their own world, and we feel the time it takes to be part of that.
They bust out in the second half of the film when they and the precious cargo that is their music are invited to SXSW. But as they get closer to the showcase, having left the safety and comfort of their cabin, fissures appear in Frank’s confidence and in their relationships. As a side note, their jams are pretty epic, so it’s hard to believe that they feel that listeners might not like them — I’m pretty sure that the people at SXSW would embrace such a band and sound. However, this works in the story, as Jon is inadvertently poisoning them from the inside, psyching them out, influencing Frank to be more commercial, trying to ensure their success.
Michael Fassbender is a revelation as Frank, in how he uses his arms, hands, and body language to portray character and emotion. It would be very easy to do this poorly, flailing your arms and legs about like Jim Carrey, but Fassbender has the perfect amount of movement to seem natural, while getting across what he needs to. He sings the songs, channeling Jim Morrison, or even more likely, Ian Curtis (in fact, the actors, a couple of whom are musician ringer, play all the music).
Frank is by turns funny and tragic, with smart dialogue and sharp little moments. It’s a navel-gazing look at art, music, and fame. But while it’s trying to be funny and not take things too heavy, it’s also a sobering look at mental illness. It was loosely inspired by musicians like Daniel Johnston, Frank Zappa, and Captain Beefheart, artists that have struggled with mental illness.
Frank was also inspired by Frank Sidebottom, a character created by Chris Sievey, a comedian and musician that played with The Freshies in the 70s and 80s. Sidebottom was a character with a giant paper mache (and later fiberglass) head that attained cult status and was even tied in with the Madchester scene. The film was written by Jon Ronson, the excellent gonzo journalist, based on his time playing in Chris Sievey’s Big Oh Blimey Band. (You can read his memoir, ‘Frank: The True Story that Inspired the Movie’).
The band has gravitated together as a family, because they understand each other. Maybe not fully, but they understand that they’re all different from the rest of the universe. And that’s much like the movie itself; it’s not out to change the world, but Frank is slice of something different and offbeat, the very reason that people like me watch movies in the first place.