"Frank" is an entertaining, musical asylum
In their cabin hidden away in Ireland, the band members hold their gaze on their fearless leader outstretched in the living room, waiting for him to tell them to begin their motion of sounds again. The bass guitar half-strums a cord, the synthesiser bursts a spark, the drummer takes a swing, fingers on the keyboard strike down three notes, and deep within the paper mache head, Frank shouts, “Again!” And they run through the sounds again, one by one. “Again!” he shouts. The four musicians continue tirelessly into the gray afternoon until Frank settles his obsession on the perfect arrangement of sounds.
Lenny Abrahamson’s newest film “Frank” is an awkwardly hilarious dark comedy hipsters and social media addicts are sure to love. In a nutshell, three certifiably insane alternative musicians, a French guitarist, and a hipster drummer chick from Jack White’s band kidnap a ginger wannabe who manages to ruin the band in one foul swoop of mediocrity.
Abrahamson previously popped out the film “What Richard Did” back in 2012, but it was really only appreciated by audiences in Ireland. This time, however, this Dublin-born director finds the honey pot with his story about an eccentric musical “genius” who wears a fake head.
At the film’s screening at the Sundance Film Festival back in January, Abrahamson introduced the film to a packed house filled with people wearing Frank’s mask, which they were given before entering the theater. The director recalls feeling like he was in a horror film as the crowd put on the innocent, toy-like Frank masks at the same time (“Five Sundance Highlights”, January 2014).
Those watching the film were all too tickled to wear and keep the masks, which seems parallel to the characters in the film. There is a definitive reason for the appeal: Frank has a certain magnetic quality to him because of the mystery behind the mask.
His concealed face is compelling enough for people, his band members in particular, to want to be him. He is the baffling composer guided by sheer genius that inspires both fascination and adoration.
Either that, or he’s completely insane. Is there really a difference?
Though its pretty weird from start to finish, “Frank” serves as a satire, a memoir, and a bromance all in one dissonant sounding package.
The film features Michael Fassbender as the completely bewildering and certified to wear a papier–mâché head, Frank Sidebottom. On the theremin and Moog is a very volatile and terrifying Maggie Gyllenhal, playing the part of Clara, Sidebottom’s sidekick girlfriend. And the one to ruin everything is the ginger, Domhall Gleeson, an aspiring song-writer and keyboard musician.
We’ve seen Fassbender flash that chiseled face of his through a number of versatile roles in recent years, some more likable than others. He has transcended his performances in roles like a Lieutenant in a rebel force during WWII, to the ever heartbreaking Sr. Rochester, to the contemptuous android David, to the resentful and destructive Erik Lensherr, to a twisted sex addict, to an unredeemable inhumane slave owner.
In Frank however, Fassbender had to find a way to express emotion and create a persona while also wearing a bulbous, semi-creepy papier–mâché head. Perhaps its a tribute to his talent as an actor, because Fassbender managed to embody a believable character that kept your attention the entire time. In an interview with reporter Steve Rose from The Guardian, Fassbender said the mask was in many ways freeing. Though the mask only has one wide-eyed blank stare, he explained that it can convey more complex emotions like vulnerability, malevolence and even confusion (The Guardian, April, 2014).
Of course, Fassbender’s character and their band, the Soronprfbs, would not have been possible without the real life inspiration, Chris Sievey, his alter ego paper mache Frank Sidebottom and his band The Freshies. An english musician from Timperley, Sievey’s partially-punk, synthesiser nasal whine performances of the 1970’s and 80’s are known in the most exclusive indie aficionado circles.
He was known for his unpredictable performances involving audience member and puppets, ending every song with the phrase “You know it is, it really is”, and using the word “bobbins”. It is perhaps Sidebottom’s less than marketable sound and low probability of making it into mainstream music that appealed to his fans, and most likely the same allure for the crowds that pay to see Abrahamson’s film.
Sidebottom’s ever protective and highly manic girlfriend Clara is played by Maggie Gyllenhal. Perhaps her character’s ability to calm Frank down from a panic attack by blowing on his neck puts her more at soul mate level, but it wasn’t really clear. I guess they just didn’t want to put a label on it.
In addition to being Frank’s girlfriend and having a social phobia, Clara played the theremin and Moog instruments in the band. The theremin, which she gaurds with the gentleness of an Egyptian asp, essentially sounds like a singing saw. Her second instrument, the Moog, which she plays with the intensity of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, is essentially a box of electricity that sounds like a bunch of circuits going haywire.
Her reverence for the band’s raw quality and creative individuality heads most of her distrust towards Gleeson’s character, who is hard set on helping the band make it to the big times. Gyllenhal's intensity and death stares, reminiscent of Tommy Lee Jones, provide for some of the film’s most memorable comedic moments.
Domhall Gleeson, previously starring in “About Time”, a Nicholas Sparks inspired vomitron cornucopia of love, plays the part of aspiring songwriter Jon Burroughs. After watching one of the band members attempt to commit suicide by drowning himself in the ocean, Burroughs’ is invited to play on keyboards for the band, to which he immediately accepts. He is essentially kidnapped by the band to a remote cabin in rural Ireland, where he will rehearse with the band for eleven months as they prepare for recording their first album.
Though Burroughs earnestly wishes to create music and value sound the way Frank does, his songs barely scrape the bottom of the barrel of mediocrity. He intends for the band to be a huge hit, and for Frank to be famous, however, his attempts at making this alternative eccentric band mainstream opens roads best not followed.
But what is made emphatically clear is the importance of the band’s integrity and maintaining obscurity instead of commercial success. This is of course the conflict between Burroughs and the rest of the band. While Burroughs is willing to upload various videos of the band’s technique on Youtube, and update events on Twitter, it ultimately pulls the band under the pressure to become crowd pleasing. However, what makes a band like The Freshies invaluable to its fans is its cult-like aura and alternative technique.
Perhaps people won’t be running into the theaters to see “Frank”, but faithful fans of Chris Sievey will appreciate the representation, and those curious about Fassbender wearing a papier–mâché head will peer in and enjoy the eccentricity of the whole thing.
And hopefully they'll all stay until the end to hear Fassbender sing perhaps the band's greatest song "I Love You All". It's an instant classic.