Dir: Lenny Abrahamson
The concept for Frank sounds like an unbearably quirky indie movie: an experimental rock group retreats to the wilds of Ireland to record their magnum opus with a new keyboardist in tow – hijinks ensue and lessons are learned. Oh yeah, and the band is fronted by an enigmatic genius who never (he has a certificate!) removes his giant paper-mâché head. The execution is so much better than that description might suggest and Frank turns out to be a genuinely funny and heartfelt ode to creativity and the artistic muse, anchored by a performance that confirms Michael Fassbender’s talent and charisma can even shine through a giant fake head.
Frank is told from the perspective of audience surrogate Jon (Domnhall Gleeson), a small-town wannabe musician working a dead-end office job and still living with his parents. He’s introduced walking down the street composing ditties in his head, all of which are uniformly (and hilariously) terrible. Fate intervenes when Jon spots two policemen rescuing a suicidal man from drowning in the ocean. The victim is the keyboardist for touring band the Soronprfbs and manager Don (Scoot McNairy, continuing a streak of great roles) offers Jon a chance to play with them that night. The gig is disastrous, but frontman Frank (Michael Fassbender, a true movie star who is obscured under the aforementioned fake head) sees something in Jon, who is invited to join the band in Ireland.
Keen British viewers will immediately recognize Frank as being inspired by the character of Frank Sidebottom, a creation of real-life musician and comedian Chris Sievey. Frank co-writer Jon Ronson toured as part of Sievey’s band and the resultant movie is a distillation and fictionalization of those experiences. That first-hand knowledge of struggling musicians certainly shines through in the trials and tribulations of the Soronprfbs (don’t worry, no one in the movie can pronounce it either).
Slyly duplicitous yet well meaning, the Soronprfbs essentially trick Jon into staying at their rented Ireland cabin to help record their new album. The band consists of types that are eventually given dimension: manager Don had big musical aspirations but knows he’s talentless (foreshadowing Jon’s fate), the near-silent Nana (Carla Azar) and Baraque (François Civil) dutifully provide the backbeat while sullenly smoking cigarettes and resenting Jon’s presence, while multi-instrumentalist Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is outwardly hostile towards Jon and suspicious of his true intent. It’s only by the grace of the guileless Frank that Jon’s dream of being in a band is realized.
Frank is first seen onstage performing (where he’s most comfortable); offstage things seem to be more difficult for him. He has to eat liquefied food through a straw and clean under his mask with homemade tools. His head is no mere affectation though and in fact it never comes off (as Jon realizes when he catches Frank in the shower). At a border crossing Jon starts to ask questions and is told by manager Don to “just go with it”, much the same way the rest of the band does. Frank seems to need the head to get into his persona and the band needs Frank to create music. Some of the movie’s best sequences are when the band is recording and finding their way into new songs. It feels organic and natural, and captures the creative process in a way that movies seldom do.
Fassbender is astounding as Frank, alternately childlike and gently chiding as he pushes his bandmates to their limits to unearth what’s in them. He makes them think “in the key of D” and attacks them with karate to ensure peak physical preparedness. His Frank is the creative id unhinged from regular life and enabled by his bandmates, especially the protective Clara. Fassbender gets the movie’s best lines and embodies the humour and soul of Frank’s wounded heart. Is Frank a genius or mentally ill? Perhaps both? He certainly seems to enter manic phases and the need to wear a mask 24/7 is usually not the sign of a sound mind.
Jon is enthralled by Frank and during the protracted recording process he uses social media to bring the unheralded Soronprfbs to the world. The online attention leads to a gig at Austin’s South-by-Southwest festival and it’s in the Texas desert that the cracks in Frank’s façade and the band itself begin to show. Viewers that demand answers are eventually given them in a more serious third act that draws back the curtain slightly. Without giving anything away, the well-earned ending is cathartic and incredible.
While it references road movies and The Big Lebowski (in an ash-scattering scene worthy of Walter Sobchak), it’s fellow Irish film The Commitments that seems like a true spiritual cousin to Frank. In both films the actors actually played their instruments and recorded the music live, a nice change of pace from actors lip-syncing poorly. But while Frank may have some elements in common with other movies, its greatest strength lies in its idiosyncrasy. The movie is full of laughs, but they arise from character and situation instead of easy potshots at someone who’s different. Director Lenny Abrahamson treats the story with a deft touch and wisely avoids turning Frank into a joke.
Ultimately Frank is about an artist who wears a giant fake head and whether he needs that crutch to do so. Our way into this world is an outsider who desperately wants to create something worthwhile but simply may not be able to. There’s a friction there that drives the narrative and underlines everything that occurs. A coda to the film suggests the concept of individual exceptionalism (like in The Incredibles when it’s stated that if “everyone is super, then no one is”), meaning Frank “has it” and Jon doesn’t. Whether or not you believe that statement will likely depend on if you identify more with Frank or Jon. Either way, Frank is an engaging and transformative ride. It’s truly satisfying and one of the best of the year.