Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, out on August 22, is the bizarre and funny tale of a young English musician’s adventures joining an absolutely crazy – but talented – American band. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender and Maggie Gyllenhaal, the film was inspired by journalist/filmmaker Jon Ronson’s experiences playing in a band with Frank Sidebottom, the giant-head-wearing alter ego of comedian/musician Chris Sievey. Although the head that Frank (Fassbender) wears in the movie is identical to Frank Sidebottom’s, and the way in which Jon (Gleeson) joins the band mirrors Ronson’s, the plot and Frank’s character are apparently mostly fictionalized.
Jon is a struggling songwriter with a boring office job in a coastal town in England when he witnesses a suicidal man being rescued from the sea, and realizes that the man’s band members are standing nearby watching in a blazé manner. The manager Don (Scoot McNairy) tells Jon that the rescued man is their keyboardist and now they can’t play their gig that night. Jon ventures aloud that he plays keyboard and after some quick discussion, and the urgent question, “Can you play C, F and G?”, he’s got the job. The group is called The Soronprfbs and Jon has no idea how to pronounce it or what he’s getting into.
He shows up to the gig just as they’re ready to play, and then Frank strolls out onstage with his giant head. The band sounds good though and Jon manages to join in on keys; the music is dark, interesting, and somewhat avant-garde as Frank sings in a deep voice, and gestures dramatically. Then suddenly, synth/theremin player Clara (Gyllenhaal) throws a screaming fit and stomps onstage, giving Jon his first taste of the band dynamics. Excited to be a part of a group, however, he sets off with them in a van believing he’s just playing another show, only to discover two alarming things: Frank still has the head on and apparently NEVER takes it off, and the band is staying indefinitely at a vacation home to record an album. So Jon has basically been kidnapped by a band in which everyone – especially Clara – detests him, except for Frank and the manager Don, both of whom he quickly learns are actually mentally ill.
It sounds like an unfunny set-up, but it’s darkly hilarious, even when you feel frustrated for Jon, whose songwriting skills are far below the band’s level and generally just very uncool. His polite cheerfulness is the perfect aggravation for the black-wearing, scowling Clara, and the French bassist Baraque (Francois Civil) and drummer Nana (Carla Azar of Autolux, Jack White’s band), who barely even speak. As Don explains, everyone is in awe of Frank and his commitment and talent, and no one has ever seen him without his fake head.
Frank is friendly and encouraging to Jon, but very intense and over-the-top about finding the music inside themselves and the farthest corners, etc. Jon begins tweeting about the band’s “field work” (collecting outdoor sounds) and other eccentricities, putting up with a lot of indignities and outrageous hostility from Clara. His tweets and videos sound so ridiculous that he gains tons of hits and followers, leading to an invitation to play SXSW.
This allows Frank to suddenly reveal the side of him that always wanted his music to be loved, which is something that Clara despises. Gyllenhaal does a great job as Clara because I really wanted someone to punch her in the face, which is what she tells Jon he deserves (while he’s innocently making stew). But once the plan becomes reality and they arrive in Austin, Jon gets so caught up in his own dream of success that he refuses to notice the signs that perhaps Frank isn’t capable of handling fame after all.
The movie wants to convey that Jon really makes a mess of things, but I couldn’t go along with that assertion, because I don’t see how anyone could blame him for wanting to be successful. It shouldn’t give too much away to say that one could argue that the disastrous events actually help Frank and the band in the end, although I still wanted to see Clara get taken down. Gleeson is excellent and Fassbender, without even visible features, is perfect as the vulnerable, artistic Frank, who conjures lyrics out of thin air and intones them with an almost Jim Morrison charisma, only more innocent.
The music the band plays in the film was written by Abrahamson’s frequent music collaborator Stephen Rennicks, who did an awesome job of creating something odd but still accessible. The actors are also actually playing their instruments and all the songs were recorded live while filming. If there ends up being a soundtrack album, I might just have to get it.
Images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures