Frank

August 27, 2014

frank-michael-fassbender

 

The tricky thing about any film about a fictional band is expressing talent without actually having the years of hard work and, well, talent that goes into a truly exceptional band. Harder still, in the case of Frank, is crafting something believable about an avant-garde pop group based on some of the most idiosyncratic and unique artists of our time. Drawing most obviously from the alternative comedian Frank Sidebottom, but also liberally from Captain Beefheart and Daniel Johnston to flesh out the story, journalist Jon Ronson (whom played in Sidebottom’s band briefly) and co-writer Peter Straughan use an approach that is at times cloyingly obvious until it becomes genuinely surprising. It is a traditional rock band film in a lot of ways, but as Soronprfbs (the fictional band) are in no way traditional, it becomes a freeing exploration of this kind of oddball band destined for cult status by contrasting the way this story would normally go with the way it actually does. It is, in a fashion, using the subversion of the genre to understand the art it depicts.

Our entry point into this world is a rather bland office worker who dreams of being a musician, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson). After chancing upon a keyboard player attempting to drown himself in his seaside town, he volunteers to fill in for the band’s gig that night. It goes well for about 30 seconds before an onstage explosion leads to an onstage implosion, but it was enough for the lead singer and songwriter, Frank (Michael Fassbender, wearing a version of Frank Sidebottom’s papier-mache head for virtually the entire film) to ask him to join the band. They travel to a remote cottage in Ireland where they attempt to write and record an album and shenanigans ensue. We get a fuller impression of some of the band, namely the almost perpetually angry theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and the depressive manager Don (Scoot McNairy). Montages and narration give the impression of the experimental and artistically exciting nature of Frank and the band’s process, though tellingly we only get fleeting snippets of the actual music. Tragedy occurs but is followed up with an offer to play at SXSW in Austin due to Jon’s secretly recorded Youtube videos and Twitter updates – the latter being an annoying visual trend that reached it’s nadir in Jon Favreau’s Chef earlier this year and is, at least coyly, eventually mocked here. So you have the introduction, the immersion in the artistic world, the tragedy, the big break, and of course the eventual implosion and then triumph.

Structurally the narrative isn’t in the least bit original, but the causal issues are somewhat unique and certainly illuminating. For one thing, and it is a crucial, the young, naïve narrating character in these films tends to be somewhat passive – our window into this world. Jon, unknowingly, is actually the catalyst for the mayhem and the breakdown because even if he’s drawn into the exciting, magnetic artistry of Frank, he doesn’t understand what’s behind it, and never fully shakes his desire to be a famous musician. Clara implicity understands this, and if for a while she and the other members seem to be willfully obtuse and pointedly anti-ambitious, it’s because they understand something about Frank and themselves that Jon lacks the empathy to see. It makes for a tricky final section, where the sort of charming wannabe looking to be accepted into this group – and never fully is – becomes an outright prick even as it should be obvious that Frank has significant issues.

Gleeson does a pretty good job of being kind of doofy to straight up unlikable, but the real impressive feat is Fassbender as Frank, the only other character who actually has a discernable arc, even if it is an unresolved one. Without being able to use his face, Fassbender suggests an impressive range with just his arms and body movement. It’s a lot to work with, sure, but when the air of mystique and competent genius melts away it’s both shocking and convincing – a crawl underneath a table in a diner is both comedic and hugely expressive of a mental state.

The film doesn’t land every gag the way it probably wanted to, and certain scenes of musical invention at the cottage don’t feel totally true, even if you take into account Jon’s skewed perspective. There are also some tonal shifts that don’t completely work, and the directing by Lenny Abrahamson feels somewhat anonymous. Despite all that, it works in the end, and in large part because of the end, which is one of the finest and most moving finales of any film this year. It becomes apparent that holding back a full song was a wise and thematically relevant move on the part of the filmmakers, because we as an audience couldn’t have understood what makes this band a band the same way Jon couldn’t until the end, and when it comes together it’s a beautiful thing. The music is more Swell Maps idiosyncratic than Beefheart avant garde, but it’s honest and accessible in a way that the best of this type of music becomes once the listener has the right perspective. The film’s running pointed jabs at meme culture and viral marketing for “cult quirk” are also given a true meaning other than satire – for these artists and so many others plugging away, it’s the expression that matters to themselves more than the reception of the audience. That’s why it feels so personal when a fan truly connects with it, and that’s why Frank rises above its flaws.

-M

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