Frank (2014) starring Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson
What’s it about?
Domhnall Gleeson plays Jon Burroughs, an aspiring songwriter cum keyboard player in a Welsh seaside town who takes inspiration from the banal goings-on around him. Unfortunately, too many of these are from the headphones of people on his bus rides, so the best he can do is to tweet on Twitter about his uneventful life.
One day, an American band named Soronprfbs comes to town. However, there is one problem: their keyboardist has just tried to drown himself in the sea. Jon happens to be in the vicinity at the time and is asked by another band member named Don (Scoot McNairy) if he can substitute on keyboards for the night. At the venue, he meets the rest of the band, including the temperamental theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a Frenchman who can’t speak English named Baraque (Francois Civil), the quiet Nana (Clara Azar) and the most bizarre of them all, frontman Frank (Michael Fassbender) who spends his entire life wearing a huge papier-mâché head.
Despite Jon only playing the same three notes throughout the night, Frank likes him so much that he invites him over to a “thing” in Ireland they are doing. Believing it is just another gig, Jon agrees to go along with them. It turns out however that they are going to a retreat to record a new album. It’s a process which involves lots of eccentric behaviour, in particular on the part of Frank himself.
Jon, meanwhile, records their exploits via social media, the results of which will have dramatic consequences for the band.
Watch a trailer:
Why is it significant?
If you cast your mind back two or three years you might remember that Michael Fassbender generally starred in films which were… you know… good. Frank from 2014 is a prime example. Believe it or not, while the casting of Fassbender fitted the film incredibly well, the role was originally written with Johnny Depp in mind. However, since that this was a low-budget independent co-production the Pirates of the Caribbean star would have undoubtedly been far too costly to obtain.
It is partially based on co-writer Jon Ronson’s experiences as part of Frank Sidebottom’s Oh Blimey Big Band, plus with a good deal of inspiration taken from accounts of the recording of avant-garde rocker Captain Beefheart’s album Trout Mask Replica.
The real-life Frank Sidebottom was a character whom erstwhile Cheshire punk musician Chris Sievey transformed himself into by putting on a huge oval papier-mâché head and adopting a squeaky voice. His first major appearances came during the 1980s when he popped up on various British TV shows playing banjo covers of pop hits. A few years later he got his own shows Frank Sidebottom’s Fantastic Shed Show and Frank Sidebottom’s Proper Telly Show In B & W. He was also a popular fixture on the comedy stages in British music festivals. Alas, in 2010, he died of cancer at the age of 54.
How does it hold up?
Frank the movie may only be loosely based the true events surrounding Mr. Sidebottom - but it ultimately embodies his eccentric spirit perfectly. At surface level there is a lot of zany and outright surreal humour which erupts from this motley band. Whether it’s Frank chasing Jon round a field in his attempts to hit him with a broom, or finding inspiration in drinking straws and other inconsequential objects, or whether it’s the volatile Clara saying “stay away from my fucking theremin” whenever Jon asks what it is, there is an off-the-wall hilarity to the proceedings.
However - much like Frank’s frankly inane mask - the mental issues the characters are clearly going through are only endearingly eccentric on the surface. The subject matter is unmistakably dark; all of this bizarre behaviour is about “pushing people to their furtherest corners” to unlock their creativity via mental breakdown. Suicides are attempted and successful. Bust-ups occur. One band member gets stabbed. In one telling scene, Frank tells Jon that he reveals his hidden facial expressions by saying them out loud. These are usually positive - his first one for Jon is “welcoming smile” - but are they his true facial expressions?
An extra layer of distance from the reality of the mental illness the band is going through is, in turn, experienced via the social media Jon keeps blogging to throughout his adventures (in a seemingly gimmicky but actually quite creative device, his typed comments on Twitter and the like are superimposed on screen). A video of the band uploaded on YouTube gains thousands of hits, but it’s later revealed that it’s their insanity and not their talent that is drawing the viewers. There is a fascination in watching the sheer idiosyncrasies of pop and rock stars, be they David Bowie or Syd Barrett, Amy Winehouse or Michael Jackson. From afar they are an amusing spectacle but up-close they are a tragedy.
Fassbender on fine form
Michael Fassbender undoubtedly had a formidable challenge trying to upstage his huge mask but works it successfully by playing it the only way where his persona would work as a centre of gravity for other musicians, i.e. with an entirely straight but charismatic tone that belies his own absurdity. Domhnall Gleeson is a good actor who has often ended up being relegated to the periphery of larger films such as Dredd, The Revenant and Star Wars Episode VII. Here, however, he’s an engaging audience identification figure who ultimately attempts in his own well-meaning manner to impose a grounding, managerial influence on a band stuck too far in cloud cuckoo land to find any direction. Maggie Gyllenhaal is the arguable show-stealer as the archetypal disdainful-control-freak-who-could-erupt-at-any-moment type of band member. However, in many ways she is as protective of Frank’s idiosyncrasies as she is of her own standing in the band - she too, is in the thrall of the whole “insane genius” mantra.
It’s blackly funny, bittersweet and strange.
Runtime: 95 mins
Dir: Lenny Abrahamson
Script: Jon Ronson, Peter Straughan
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, Francois Civil, Clara Azar