From the opening scene of Frank (2014), directed by Lenny Abrahamson, it’s quite clear that a great deal of its humour is going to be built on quirkiness, as Jon (Domhnaal Gleeson) hopelessly walks through his small seaside hometown looking for inspiration for lyrics. Sources of inspiration come from a ‘lady in the red dress’ and a ‘woman in blue’ as he questions whether the latter knows the former. But by the film’s conclusion, what really set it apart from other quirky independent movies was it’s it’s heart, sincerity and its ability to tackle ‘serious issues’ without feeling heavy handed or overly sentimental – plus it’s really, really funny.
Gleeson is instantly likeable in his role as Jon, a young aspiring musician still living with his parents, who, after a chance encounter with the indie-electronic band Soronprfbs (pronunciation unknown), who just so happen to be looking for a new keyboard player, as their other one had just attempted to drown himself in the ocean – not the last time suicide and mental illness are explored in the film. Jon, being a capable keyboard player (can play ‘F, C and A’), is offered the role for their show that night by the band’s manager, Don (Scoot McNairy) – an offer he enthusiastically accepts. It is at this show that we are first introduced into the band members of Soronprfbs, including Nana (Carla Azar), Baraque (François Civil), the theremin-playing Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and the titular frontman, Frank (played incredibly by the incredible Michael Fassbender), whose most obvious feature is probably the large Papier-mâché head he wears 24/7.
From this short-lived gig, Abrahamson is able to show us several important things: Soronprfbs’ music and style is particularly eccentric and perhaps a little inaccessible (though I have to say I was into them). There is serious tension within the band, largely stemming from the hostile Clara. Frank is something else. And Jon loved every minute of it.
A few days after the show, Jon receives a call offering him an extended position in the band, which he again enthusiastically accepts. Jon then finds himself in a cabin in the woods in Ireland, where Soronprfbs plan to record their debut album. It is during this album recording, which takes far longer than expected, that Frank is at its best. The comedy is right on point as the ‘modern alternative musician’ is playfully mocked – ‘playfully’ being the key word, as it never feels we are laughing at Frank and his band – a credit to Abrahamson and writers, Jon Ronson and Peter Straughn. An example being when Frank takes the group through the pre-recording stage, which involves the sound recording of things like jumping and swinging a stick through the air.
This section of the film is also where the heart and sincerity begins to come through, as we learn who these characters are, the most compelling of the group being Scoot McNairy’s Don, and of course Frank, whom – largely due to Fassbender’s superb acting and presence, and some decent writing – we sometimes forget is wearing a papier-mâché head, or we at least forget that it is something out of the ordinary. Don and Frank not only prove to be the most engaging and well acted characters of the film, but also the most disturbed – which becomes clearer throughout – leading to some genuinely moving moments. While the comedy and light tone is reasonably constant, expect to be moved on several occasions.
After the album recording, Soronprfbs moves onto their next stage: SXSW. This is where the conflict really arises between Jon and Clara (played brilliantly by Gyllenhaal, by the way), who had never really accepted the new band member. This part of the film is filled with disillusionment for both Jon and the audience, as we learn more about Frank and his struggles. These struggles certainly aren’t just more quirky characteristics, as the film delves into his mental illness – a weighted theme that the film totally earns its right to explore, never feeling forced or out of place.
This all amounts to what is a truly moving conclusion full of sincerity, while not abandoning its sense of humour. I should also probably mention that the film is loosely based on the life of Chris Sievey and his alter ego, Frank Sidebottom. While I was surprised to see how similar the beginning of the film was to the screenwriter, Jon Ronson’s experience with Sievey, the film is really more of a tribute than it is a biopic.
Frank is a film that is able to combine its, at times, bizarre humour with its more heartfelt and dark tone without one ever feeling at odds with the other. This is achieved through some solid writing, seemingly effortless direction, and some incredible performances. The strong cinematography and music also help to authentically capture the atmosphere of the film, whether it be the recording of an album in a cabin in the woods, or being at SXSW. Frank also has some big things to say regarding mental illness, as well as the kind of idolisation of the ‘disturbed artist’ that has been evident in our culture for some time. Plus it’s really, really funny.
Best part: Frank’s ‘likeable music’
Worst part: the part in the opening credits where Jon walks across the screen from left to right, the credits disappearing as he passes them. A tired ’new cliche’ of indie films. Fortunately the remainder of the film is anything but cliche.
Score: Loved it heaps.