Michael Fassbender is fascinating as the papier-mâché headed lead singer in Frank, which celebrates weirdness and understands mental illness
Frank is just about as quirky and surreal as you’d imagine a movie about an experimental indie band with a lead singer who constantly wears a giant papier-mâché head would be. However, surprisingly, the character of Frank (Michael Fassbender) — who dons that giant head for the entire 90-minute running time — isn’t the weirdest character in this movie. And that is one of the many reasons that this movie triumphs. Although this is a pretty sharp satire of the creative process, particularly that of the new wave of pretentious indie artists that seem to think that building an audience is a threat to their artistic integrity, it also has an appreciation for the same people and has a firm step in reality. It begs interesting questions, even if the way it ponders them can only be described as eccentric.
Jon (Domhnall Gleeson, in yet another strong, but under appreciated performance) is a down-on-his-luck wannabe musician who is tolling his days in his cubicle or walking down the street piecing together lyrics based on his observations. One day, as he’s walking down the beach, he witnesses a man being pulled out of the ocean by paramedics. As the man is being attended to, he encounters Don (Scoot McNairy), who reveals that the man was drowning himself and was the keyboardist in the band Soronprfbs — no one actually knows how to pronounce it. When Jon mentions that he is a keyboardist, Don, the manager of the band, invites him to fill in at their gig that night. When Jon shows up, the rest of the band is reluctant except for Frank.
This first performance with the band, with all the disparate electronic sounds, nonsensical lyrics being talk-sung by Frank, and lack of melody, is surprisingly charming. That’s mostly due to the fact that Frank, thanks to Fassbender, is as whimsical as the enormous papier-mâché head he wears — the head is oblong and smooth with enormous eyes that constantly feel like they’re judging you. After the performance, which goes well until it doesn’t, Frank invites Jon to become a full-time member of the band and to join them in Ireland and record the band’s first album. The band, particularly Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), has a strong disdain for Jon whose mainstream tastes rub them the wrong way.
Eventually, after explicit hot tub sex, a Viking funeral, and a lesson on YouTube, Jon reveals that he has been sharing videos of the band rehearsing online and that they’ve been invited to the South by Southwest festival. It takes a while for the movie to get to its main points, but it ponders them vigorously until the very end. Who is art for? The artist or the audience? In the case of Frank, there is the added storyline of mental illness. The way you react to the tonal switch in the third act will determine how you react to this movie as a whole.
On the two sides of the aisle are Jon and Clara. Jon, who is more concerned with his social media followers, is encouraging Frank as an artist to share their music with the world. Clara, on the other hand, recognizes the fragility of Frank’s psyche. She understands that for Frank the music is art and medicine. In director Lenny Abrahamson’s able hands, the shift from quirky comedy to character study is jarring, but a welcome relief. Though watching the band set in the woods painstakingly use various household objects to make disparate noises to use on their album is hilarious, there isn’t necessarily a way that you can see the movie wrapping up successfully on that tone.
Gleeson’s character is set up to be the “straight man” of the group, though his social awkwardness certainly gives him comedy points. Seeing the movie through his eyes give us a chance to view Frank mythically, then as misunderstood. Fassbender, on the other hand, gives us a surprisingly grounded view of a character as weird as Frank before giving us a view into his world. Mind you, Fassbender is doing this all without ever showing his face — he even wears it in the shower with a plastic bag protecting it — though his character does announce his expression periodically throughout the movie. Just through his physicality, you can witness the journey Frank goes through. It’s remarkable how much he emotes just through his body. More than that, though, he makes Frank more than just his papier-mâché head.
Banksy — another enigmatic artist whose identity has yet to be revealed — once said, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” It’s hard to grasp that quote unless you’re an artist. What screenwriters Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan were able to do was give us a look into the mind of an auteur — the screenplay is based on several musicians including Frank Sidebottom and Daniel Johnston — for better or worse. The first part of the movie, which is as entertaining as they come, lets us in on the better. The final act, the worse. However, you leave the movie with a different understanding of art, mental illness, and what it means to be different. For the disturbed, you will be comforted. For the comfortable, get ready to get disturbed.