Allow us to be Frank.
“These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of the rock stars, and they will ruin rock ‘n’ roll and strangle everything we love about it … and then it just becomes an industry of cool.” – Lester Bangs, Almost Famous (2000)
Is insanity a prerequisite for brilliance? There’s a lot going on beneath the idiosyncratic sheen of Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, a film that explores the eccentricities of the music industry and the hazy line that isolates genius from craziness.
In the opening moments, a young man searches his coastal surroundings in the hope that some form of musical inspiration will come to him. He is ultimately let down by his own shaky talent. It’s an all but too familiar scenario to those of us who have searched in ourselves for ability only to be hindered by reality.
Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is an aspiring musician whose talent doesn’t quite match his ambition. A chance encounter with Don (Scoot McNairy) leads to Jon being invited to play keyboard with the mysterious band called “Soronprfbs”. Leading the band is Frank (Michael Fassbender), a man who never removes a large Papier Mâché head from his shoulders. John joins the group on a creative retreat in Ireland where his social media awareness and ambition begins to leave him at odds with some of the other band members, who inexplicably regard success as failure.
Based loosely on Chris Sievey’s comic persona Frank Sidebottom as well as taking some inspiration from Daniel Johnston and Don Van Vliet, Frank is extraordinarily insightful concerning the oddities of the music industry. There’s a discordance between the Soronprfbs band members regarding advancement. Jon is bewildered at the group’s lack of commercial interest while theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) ridicules widespread appeal. At one point Frank declares “I’ve always envisioned having a band member who shares my dream of writing extremely likeable music!” There may be a happy medium between extreme affectation and extreme commercialism in the music industry but the members of Soronprfbs struggle to find it. Perhaps they just don’t want to.
The band accuse Jon of spying when he reveals that his online activity regarding the band has begun to garner a huge amount of interest, their enigmatic aura appealing to music lovers worldwide. What’s more curious than their outrage is the idea that a band can generate support before they’ve recorded a single note, a distinct possibility in the age of social media and certainly a testament to the idea of music being an industry of cool.
Mental illness punctuates the film, particularly regarding Frank, Don and Clara. At one point, Clara is surprised to hear that Jon thought she was sick, although her behaviour suggests that there’s certainly something about her mentality that suffers regarding social relations. This association between aptitude and insanity that spans the film is handled very well. There’s almost no question that Frank is mentally ill, and yet would treatment or a cure help in any way? The film seems to suggest that ‘fixing’ these problems often restricts rather than benefits.
Franks is a quirky film, but not overbearingly so. Considering the natural weirdness of the subject matter the weirdness feels entirely appropriate. The off-beat personalities that make up Soronprfbs is never forced but instead perhaps genuinely reflect the nature of many musicians, regardless of whether it is natural or affected. Fassbender manages to convey an impressive amount considering his head is entirely covered. Scoot McNairy continues to prove that he’s one of the most exciting emerging performers working at the moment. The actors manage to keep the characters grounded lest their quirks overshadow what’s really going on at the roots of the film.
There’s a beautiful sentiment to Frank that personal success is reward enough. Abrahamson’s fim is by no means against financial and critical reward but it is a nice reminder that they need not be the end game. Frank encourages unbridled creativity but also concedes the pomposity that often surrounds creative mediums. It’s a wonderful film and one of the best so far this year.