Frank is a Quirky Little Delight.
By Kristin Battestella
By chance, struggling songwriter Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) meets Soronprfbs, a band as unusual as its unpronounceable name thanks to Theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), silent drummer Nana (Carla Azar), French bassist Baraque (Francois Civil), and lead singer Frank (Michael Fassbender) – who just happens to wear a giant papier-mâché head at all times. Jon quickly becomes the band’s keyboard player as they set out to record their new album, but oddball manager Don (Scoot McNairy) warns Jon that it is difficult to match Frank’s unique genius. Not considering the special dynamics of the group, Jon chronicles their musical retreat on social media – but surprising internet notoriety and its subsequent festival invitation bring the band fame and a drastic upheaval.
Without subtitles, director Lenny Abrahamson (What Richard Did) and writers Jon Ronson (The Men Who Stare at Goats) and Peter Straughan’s (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) unusual singing internal monologue must be confusing to start. However, the relatable ho hum of an aspiring songwriter stuck in small town job and still living at his parents’ house quickly takes over, and Frank firmly establishes the context of its world with just enough onscreen twitter graphics, internal self-referential social media marketing, and ironic hashtags. Clearly, our unreliable narrator chronicling this unpronounceable band’s efforts via YouTube is not “#livingthedream” before or after his ridiculous beard is grown and food is rationed in this quest for song. Achieving a big break at the unfortunate circumstances of others, instant memoir capturing, and insensitive media jokes about the eponymous singer are accurate to today’s real life absurdities and lead to some tender, serious moments in Frank – which are in turn realistically cut short via slamming doors or contemporary awkwardness. The witty, natural scripting anchors Frank’s social commentary, and though goofy one-liners may seem out of context, the audience can roll with a safe word like “chinchilla!”
Where is the line between bad art and musical greatness? If you are exploring yourself and not hurting anyone with your artistic expression, does it matter? What’s mental? What’s creativity? Frank addresses both the humor and difficulty in the creative process with comedic circumstances and heavy dramatic turns beyond the music. Do we unwittingly manipulate and stifle others, hindering what they desire for our own selfish dreams? Considering the at times solemn subject matter, some of Frank’s scenes are perhaps funnier then they are meant to be, but the self-aware design here makes it okay to laugh – after all, “I thought it was supposed to be hilarious?” Sometimes that’s the kind of the question we ask ourselves in life, and Frank raises an interesting discussion about mental illness and if a rightly inspired catalyst can nonetheless turn out wrong. If it takes wearing a mask in order to be heard in our musical collective or share your individuality with a select few, why is that so unusual? How is expressing oneself from under a mask any different from those phony hashtags and the art or illusion we so adeptly present to ourselves?
Frank smartly gives the audience our window through Domhnall Gleeson (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), and we understand his pretense and relative normalcy before meeting the crazy of Soronprfbs. Maybe his life is mundane, but he thinks this bizarre band is his golden ticket and we appreciate his excitement at this adventure. Jon asks the questions on our collective mind: Does Frank have a beard under his fake head? How does he brush his teeth? Is he disfigured? He’s from Kansas? How indeed does one explain the abandonment of his job and the use of his nest egg to fund this odd band’s odyssey? The bizarre isolation of making an album becomes a therapy session for Jon. He wants Frank to open up to him but Jon is so into his own exploration that he doesn’t realize how far out of their comfort zone he has pushed the other more valuable members of Soronprfbs. Sure, he puts his body on the line and grows concerned over a keyboard player jinx, but is it worth it to shake these unstable band mates passed their limit? Jon is in many ways a fame seeking, tell all groupie wanting to be the star. He doesn’t mean to interfere but that’s exactly what his not seeing the forest for the trees fake tweets and YouTube spotlight does. Jon insinuates himself into the group and comes to believe they can’t be a success without him – but he never considers the creative expression of playing in a band is not only enough but just what Soronprfbs needs.
Understandably, the audience isn’t inside the Frank Sidebottom inspired head with Michael Fassbender (Shame, X-Men: Days of Future Past), yet his bizarre introduction makes perfect sense in this askew Frank world. Once we see Frank still wearing his head in the band’s van and realize that it is not just part of his on stage ensemble, we’re hooked. One might initially think Frank and his “has a certificate” head is something for him to hide behind, but to him, making music is a revival, a religious experience with field work, recording outdoors, and screeching like bird. His mask helps him to express himself and see through other people’s issues even though he may not accept his own broken genius. Frank has some good points about the awkwardness of people’s looks and how we are perceived, and we don’t blame him for wearing the head. Perhaps it would be annoying or too amusing, but yes, life just might be easier if we clarified our facial expressions or creativity with sincerity and without judgment. Fassbender doesn’t sing poorly at all, but the quirky lyrics and batty, unconventional music perfectly convey the offbeat genius behind the mask. It’s also ironic yet somehow fitting that we don’t know what Fassbender is really doing under the head – being method or hamming it up. The head in itself is a neat concept, but why was such a big deal made of Fassbender’s wearing it? Have not good-looking, talented thespians been hidden under masks and prosthetic make up for nearly a century of film? Fassbender has done prosthetic work previously and proven he does his all with extreme character embodiments and physicality. Technical acoustics aside, his voice is also different inside the head, adding yet another tool to make Fassbender seamlessly disappear as Frank. Maybe more stars should try performing with a bag on their head and see if they sink or swim based on body and merit instead of chisel. Fassbender’s performance is excellent as usual, yet the focus on the actor inside the giant head detracts from Frank’s themes of why we hide within our own masks whilst needlessly interfering with the content, artistic fragility of others.
And what of the delicate band that is of Soronprfbs? Maggie Gyllenhaal (Secretary, Donnie Darko) is wonderfully bitchy looking as she breaks instruments, walks of stage, and pretends she doesn’t care. Clara’s attitude is oh so modern but she is styled as a classic vamp – corsets, bras, silky lingerie, cropped black hair, and a perfect cigarette. She hates Jon, saying he is merely there to press the keys on the keyboard and nothing more. Is that his true, meager role in the band or does her fierce loyalty to Frank coddle the singer? Clara is a tough love maternal figure who contests Jon’s notion that their music must be likeable. She knows Soronprfbs doesn’t need to be famous – but they do need music to heal. It’s both sad and humorous how Clara’s physical threats and proactive defensive of Frank aren’t enough to deter Jon, and it’s an interesting role for Gyllenhaal. Crazy cool and aloof but likable, independent and strong yet inseparable from her band mates – Clara could be the cliché, detestable Yoko element of Frank, but Gyllenhaal creates a sensitive and bizarrely nurturing anchor to Soronprfbs. Scoot McNairy (Argo, also in 12 Years a Slave with Fassbender) as manager “I used to fuck mannequins” Don is also a bittersweet analysis providing comedy and catalyst for Frank. He freely admits he is weird and inferior to Frank, yet Don desperately emulates him in a tantalizing but bitter encapsulation – you have creative genius or you don’t. While some people can accept that fate, such realization can be disastrous for others. Real life rocker Carla Azar as drummer Nana doesn’t have much to do on the surface of Frank. She doesn’t speak but no less keeps the rhythm for the band, beating on regardless of the drama unfolding. When she does voice her opinion, however, Nana provides a critical fulcrum and band perspective. Bass player Baraque as played by Francois Civil (As Above, So Below) also technically doesn’t do much, but the tongue in cheek forgotten bassist of the band provides a very subtle humor. He seems to only speak French yet everyone apparently understands him with no difficulty – another hidden dynamic of Soronprfbs that an outsider just won’t figure. These members of Frank’s ensemble each have their own little eccentricities, and whether a loud voice or a small one, their parables come together beautifully and really sing.
Some audiences may not actually like the music Soronprfbs makes, but the quirky, charming scoring balances the avant-garde chords of this bemusing Frank journey. The locations are also both small and relatable or big and traumatizing as needed – from the bleak British start and exploratory Irish wilds to the rush of a faux SXSW festival performance, bitter motel rooms, deserts, and ordinary Middle America. These adventures can both maximize one’s potential or drive one crazy, and Frank portrays the tightrope possibility between genius and madness across these intimate travels. The nostalgic mix of cassettes and old-fashioned recording methods meeting computerized music technology and social media is also a jarring but parallel juxtaposition. Maybe the equipment fits and does what it needs to do, but other times the musical experimentation Soronprfbs does get scrapped for something more emotional or to the core. Streaming options are available for Frank; however, the blu-ray rental is fittingly and ironically cumbersome with abundant previews and an appropriately peculiar interface. Thankfully, a more awesome ten minutes of deleted scenes, over 40 minutes of assorted behind the scenes, cast and director interviews, and commentary tracks add heaps of discussion and continuing Frank conversation. (Oh, the puns!)
Young modern audiences may dig the offbeat musical explorations, contemporary media design, and unusual performances in Frank, yet those atypical elements may deter some viewers expecting traditional musical style, a completely hardened look at mental illness, or a more factual biopic of the late Frank Sidebottom source. Awkwardness, difficult self-discovery, and curious tunes are a major part of Frank; however, the dramatic presentation remains solid over 90 minutes. The commanding ensemble handles a difficult subject with humor and sensitivity, making for an excellent character study that explores the quirky whilst being no less poignant. Audiences shouldn’t be surprised when Frank takes a bleak thematic turn for the finale, but the conclusion here is must see and more than worthy of any perceived oddities – no matter how you pronounce Soronprfbs.