PLOT: A songwriter (Gleeson) meets a bandleader who always wears a giant head (Fassbender).
WHO'S IT FOR? Those who cherish unabashed creativity.
Frank begins inside the head of scruffy yokel Jon (Domnhall Gleeson), a musician living with his parents who just wants to compose the hit song that will bestow him on his big break. By freak timing, the struggling pop-inclined keyboardist is randomly brought on board an enigmatic band called The Soronprfbs. Within this noise rock band (start by thinking of freakier Flaming Lips tracks) is acidic synth player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), bassist and drummer Baraque and Nana (François Civil and Carla Azar), and their manager Don (Scoot McNairy). Their lead singer is also their chief songwriter, a man named Frank (Michael Fassbender) who only wears a giant head over his own made out of papier-mâché. To Jon, the band is weird but malleable, with the potential for bigger things.
Jon quits his job and relocates to Ireland with the band, who have set out to write the perfect record for however long is needed. This retreat (which ends up taking 11 months) finds Jon progressively fascinated with Frank’s cultish mystery. The film’s narrative then takes a surprising course as the dreams of Jon’s compared to those of his bandmates are shown to be destructively opposite, especially after Jon snags the band a gig at South by Southwest in Austin, TX after determining that Frank is ready to be popular.
Director Lenny Abrahamson’s film is a multi-layered treasure, a singular experience of well-portioned irony, coincidence, and dark psychological comedy. Within its gonzo journalistic experience is a consistent sense of compassion for its unusual characters, something that progressively raises this tale of art beyond the label of gimmick especially as more time is spent observing Fassbender. In the way that documentaries make viewers care for outsider artists, (center subjects viewers would not normally engage in person), Frank gestures its audience towards the complicated humanity behind such a bizarre exterior. In a sense that is parallel to its title character’s existence, the film is daffy, goofy loony, and odd, but Frank is emblematically sincere about that which has sufficiently inspired it.
With frightening recall to his emaciated body in Hunger, or his ferociously unblinking moment of vitriol in 12 Years a Slave, Fassbender continues to be a fascinating physical actor with regards to the expressiveness he now bestows on a man wearing a giant head. Using a Joaquin Phoenix-esque slurred voice and never showing a sign of predictability, Fassbender fashions an obsessive intrigue out of this guru. As Frank feels to be of myth and of human, Fassbender keeps this character genuine. Booming his revelatory baritone voice through the movie’s extended music performances, Fassbender creates a spectacle out of Frank in which the performance rivals the fascination of the character.
The quirkier colors of Frank are informed by its side characters, who in a film of less honest intent might become a bit pesky. But there’s too much to giggle about with Gyllennhaal’s razor-sharp Clara, who wins this music movie’s heart by coldly stating, “I’m not going to play the fucking ukulele,” or even Gleeson’s Jon, a pivotal surrogate into truly understanding Frank. Through his odyssey, we experience the importance of truth to be found in art, and something that stands beyond just personal expression. The film’s worst quirk conceit is its French duo Baraque and Nana, whose foreign-language snootiness is uncharacteristically cartoonish even for a movie that full-heartedly believes in its papier-mâché head.
Gloriously, beyond the movie’s dark comical riffing on the destructive MacGuffin of creative perfection, Frank begins with truth. It is loosely based on the life of Chris Sievey AKA “Frank Sidebottom,” who wore a head very similar to that now donned by Fassbender, albeit with a sharper British accent and a more pop-friendly oeuvre (you can watch him do a Queen medley among other things on Youtube). Though the mythic element of Frank is heightened to more emotionally celebrate the unapologetic creativity by Sidebottom in songs like “Christmas Is Really Fantastic,” Frank finds a warming element through its allegiance to the creation of pure art. Not great art, not popular art, but art of uncompromised expression itself - something borne from earnestness, a type of classification that provides art with more emotional wealth than a sense of passing popularity can provide.
Frank is a film that speaks in musical terms, (even chord progressions are used for dialogue irony), and the movie functions on the belief that people can discern when a song is good or not just by experiencing it - not by assessing its worth in a literal nature, lyrically or by musical skill, but in trying to connect with the art’s sense of feeling. The film’s tearful finale is a rousing moment for this notion, marking yet another triumph in Fassbender history, but one also for the creation of song; a form of art rarely explored by films, now bestowed with an introspective tribute from the expressions within Frank.
FINAL SCORE: 8/10