It’s hard to read Frank’s emotions because his facial expression never changes. How could it? It’s painted on.
Walking around with a big, spherical paper mâché head, he looks like a walking cartoon character. But unlike the folks at Disneyland, Frank plays bizarre, haunting music with disorienting melodies and foreign, electronic tones. It would all be quite intimidating if his disembodied voice weren’t so darn friendly.
The title character in Frank looks like Frank Sidebottom, the alter ego of British comedian and outsider musician Chris Sievey. Created in the 1984, Sidebottom was known for his strange, nasal voice, deranged half-sung songs and butchered covers of pop hits. But that was Frank Sidebottom. This movie is about a completely different character, simply named Frank.
Rather than make a biopic about Sievey and his creation, the filmmakers created a completely new character with Sidebottom’s look. Instead of the ’80s, the story is contemporary—and social media provides a key narrative device. Co-screenwriter Jon Ronson played keyboard in Frank Sidebottom’s band, and mixed his experience with details that suggest other fringe musicians like Daniel Johnston, Captain Beefheart and The Residents.
This creative decision may sound like a bait-and-switch—or just plain confusing—but it works. (Few Americans will be familiar with Frank Sidebottom anyhow, so it may be a moot point.) Once the time frame and setup come into focus, it’s clear that Frank is a variation on a theme rather than a true story. And given how many alterations a typical “true” stories go through before production, there’s something refreshing about screenwriters Ronson and Peter Straughan dropping all pretexts.
The film enters Frank’s world through the eyes of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a young, aspiring musician who doesn’t have much to say or any ideas how to say it. He lives a comfy life at home, writing tiny bits of songs he can’t finish and eating what his mom makes him until he is swept into the adventurous life of a band on the road, driving all night and playing to empty rooms. He sees the romance, but is rather slow to pick up on some of the anguish and mental illness that his bandmates suffer.
Frank doesn’t just wear the head for shows—he never takes it off. Michael Fassbender has the most difficult job of any cast member, as he has to create the character of Frank without any facial expressions. He uses his voice and body language to express excitement, a welcoming nature and varying degrees of anxiety. Of course, when he doesn’t say anything, no one has a clue what his reaction is, but the characters eventually devise a clever workaround.
Jon experiences friendships in the band, but also heavy animosity, especially from Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who doesn’t think there are any good reasons for Jon to be in the band. Gyllenhaal plays the character with such volatility that a fit of rage always seems right around the corner. But she also communicates with Frank on a musical level more intimately that anyone else does through that or any other means.
Director Lenny Abrahamson finds plenty of humor in his band of misfit characters, but the movie doesn’t treat their odd behavior as mere fodder for slapstick. The movie’s heart lies in its understanding of their fragility. Frank’s funniest moment comes when the frontman plays a new song that he believes has mass appeal. It is so far removed from anything approaching commercial music that it is at once glorious and tragic—glorious in its oddness and nonconformity, tragic in its in likeliness to ever find an audience.
The film’s weakest character is its hero. Gleeson captures a nice, goofy cluelessness in Jon, but the screenplay makes his attitude toward Frank inconsistent. His view of the bandleader shifts based on whatever theme the film wants to explore. He might be in awe on Frank one minute, and convinced he knows better the next.
But the film touches on those themes in a thoughtful enough manner that it’s easy to forgive the contrivances. Abrahamson recognizes when the pure act of self-expression is more powerful than any expository dialogue or stylistic flare. At the film’s finale, Fassbender’s stirring performance reminds us of the power that can be had simply by singing the song you want to sing.
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Writers: Jon Ronson, Peter Straughan
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Domhnall Gleeson, Scoot McNairy
Release Date: Aug. 22, 2014