Review: Frank


Fassbender's most strange role over.

A semi-fictional musical biopic, can Frank straddle the line between comedy and tragedy?


There is a very strong tendency in the promotional world of movies today, the world of trailer editing and social media advertising, to skew anything even vaguely comedic into looking like a full blown comedy. Those two minutes and change are stuffed full of jokes, and you get the impression that when you do see it, it might just be a laugh riot. Frank’s trailer was like that. But while Frank could be described as at least a half-comedy, it’s another one of these films that hides a core of great seriousness behind any levity. It rather reminded me of Ruby Sparks in that sense, another film serious drama trying to hide in comedy’s clothing.

Loosely based on some autobiographical writings of Jon Ronson related to his experience with the Frank Sidebottom band, Frank is the story of a directionless wannabe musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) who, by random chance, becomes the substitute keyboard player for “Soronprfbs”. This unconventional band includes eccentrics like the unhinged theremin player, Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and sexual deviant Don (Scoot MacNairy) but is dominated by the titular Frank (Michael Fassbender), a musical prodigy who wears a papier-mâché head over his own 24/7. While recording an album in rural Ireland, tensions in the group come to the fore, before, on Jon’s urging, they travel to perform at the South by Southwest festival in Texas.

More in-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers, from here on out. My shorter, non-spoiler, review is available at The Write Club.

Frank is a strange film, at once laugh out loud levels of comedic, and then deeply disturbing at other moments. There is something a little off about how this film has been put together, as if the director and production team weren’t really sure if they wanted to make something that would make people laugh, make them cry, or some strange mixture of both.

The humour of the early sections is generally dark (occasionally physical) but still enjoyable, as we delve into the rather manic workings of what I can only describe as an alternative indie electro pop/rock band. Frank initially seems to just want to offer a glimpse at the insanity that permeates certain aspects of music, and how such a fringe genre of sound seems to attract people who already have serious issues, how it serves as a means for them to emote and gain a catharsis from their own troubled minds. But you can’t get away from the sense that Frank’s humour is more in line with that of a circus freak show: come look at the weirdoes and their crazy music, isn’t this funny?

A lot of that is based around Frank himself, the name giver and main focus of so much of Jon’s retelling. At first he just seems “kooky”,  a very strange musician who maybe finds inspiration in wearing such a noticeably odd thing on his head. You can get humour from that, and how Frank goes about relating to other people, both that he knows well and complete strangers. There seems to be a certain magic to Frank in a way, both to create good music and to forge connections with whatever random people he comes across, who are invariably enthralled by who he is rather than mystified.

But as with the rest of the film, things get darker and darker as we move along, as Frank struggles to properly deal with the pressure of even slight fame, before he eventually snaps. There’s also a consistent question over Frank and why he wears the head to ponder, and the final answer to that question might not satisfy everyone. It was probably wrong of me to expect a deeper revelation about Franks’ existence and dependence on his mask – in fact, Frank goes out of its way to point out how wrong such an opinion is – but I cannot deny that there was something deeply unsatisfying about the final reveal of a “headless” Frank and his end scene slip back into musical functionality. I suppose it might just be because it wasn’t so much an ending as seeing Frank resume his place on an endless cycle: the title character doesn’t really change or evolve as an entity, we just find new aspects to him, and the same can be said for so many others.

At its heart, Frank is the story of Jon's disillusionment with music, a well worn tale.

At its heart, Frank is the story of Jon’s disillusionment with music, a well worn tale.

I don’t mean to sound too negative of course. There are some really interesting characters here, and director Lenny Abrahamson makes sure to give all of them at least some screen time to try and entertain and enthral. They’re all far deeper than their initial appearance might suggest and Jon’s desire and journey to become one of them is a plot that you have no problem following along with, through his rather excellent narration.

Aside from Frank its Clara who takes most of the screen time, and she’s a very strange one in her own right, violently dangerous even as she copulates with Jon. The point of that sex scene was mostly lost on me, besides just depicting Clara as more manic and unguessable than she already was. She seems to exist in the film initially as an obstacle for Jon – Jon in this case taking on something akin to a “Yoko” presence, causing divides in the band – and only later does she seem more vulnerable, when she loses control of the person she has become increasingly obsessed with. She ends the film back with him, but it is hard to see what kind of future the two might have. It’s not a romantic relationship, at least I didn’t think so, it’s more maternal, and all the more disturbing for it. Scoot MacNairy’s Don, the band’s manager and former keyboard player, is another, someone who is introduced with jokes about his sexual perversions and who exits the stage in as sudden and shocking a way as possible, a grim foreshadowing for Jon.

There’s an exploration here, a unique one, of how mental illness can affect people, and those who are next to it constantly. Its pointed out to Jon that the last two keyboard players of the band met bad ends, and it isn’t long before he is heading in that direction himself. Musicians are drawn to Frank because he seems to be able to pluck songs and lyrics from thin air, writing cogent melodies and words about something he’s just seen, the kind of innate skill that Jon can only wish he had. But being next to him seems to warp you: Jon becomes increasingly obsessed with finding fame and escaping mundanity, and even his physical appearance alters drastically as time goes on. He becomes resentful towards the band and, later, Frank himself for leading him on this path. When he finds Frank again after losing him, a direct visual comparison is drawn between their two backgrounds, implying that Jon too could become as crazy as Frank. In the end Jon is able to escape, but only by handing Frank off to the people who seem better suited to his presence, because they’re already as lost, in a sense, as he is.

Maybe I’m getting too ahead of myself though. Let’s step back a bit and look at the structure of Frank. The first two acts almost seem conventional in a way. We follow the hopelessly mundane Jon follow his dreams of being in a band, which turns out to be a different experience to his expectations, the kind of story that you might have seen in half a dozen different music-based films (Almost Famous anyone?). Jon is a fairly pitiable creature, living with his parents, working in a cubicle and unable to think of any song that isn’t either a bunch of random observation strung together or a rip-off of an already existing song. We want, initially, to see him succeed and find a place in the music world, even if his “in” is a bunch of very strange people.

Finding those people and travelling to rural Ireland (County Wicklow I believe) moves us into a second act, and the “fun and games” portion of the experience. While there is some seriousness and hinting at the dark nature of things to come, most of this time is spent on whimsy, random observations and the slowly unravelling state of Jon’s sense of stability, as he sacrifices more of his time, appearance and ultimately his money to stay where he is and try and learn from Frank’s genius. These are Frank’s best sections really, fulfilling most of the promise from the promotional material, containing many memorable sequences, not least when Frank convinces a German family to let them keep the cabin they’re illegally squatting in (as it turned out).

Jon’s desire to find fame beyond his own current existence drives the band towards greater exposure and from there Frank starts taking a far more unsettling turn. It’s bad enough that he spies on them and uploads their activities to the internet without consent, but then he begins to warp Frank’s own thoughts by dangling a carrot of popularity in front of him, the idea that “people want to listen to us?” Clara see’s where this is going and tries to warn Jon off, but Jon doesn’t actually understand the situation, or the consequences of what he’s doing, even as the audience comes to realise.

This comes on the heels of one of the most disturbing moments, as Don hangs himself while wearing one of Frank’s heads, as clear a sign of what the process of mental instability can do to those around it as Frank wants to make. Don’s death is fairly shocking, as is the blasé way that the film then wants to treat the aftermath – a Viking funeral and a botched ash release – an example of seriousness and comedy not mixing to their very utmost. Frank’s turned the corner with Don’s death, and it can’t really go back: a suicide of this nature is just that too serious a topic to treat with levity in this way.

After the earlier light-heartedness, much of this darker material actually feels like an unnecessary drag, a tonal shift that is both unexpected and a little unpleasant. I wouldn’t say it ruins the film at all, it just does feel like Frank is trying to be two different things in the course of its running time. It’s similar to my problems with Silver Linings Playbook actually: I have an aversion to making comedy out of mental illness and treating it seriously in the same breath. It’s just mixing a few ingredients together that are not meant to be mixed.

Jon, as he repeatedly says in the latter sections of the film, ends up “ruining everything”. Neither Frank nor the band can cope with what’s happening in the South by Southwest festival, with Frank’s breakdown as heart-rending as it is sad. Frank finally makes you (and Jon) realise the innate truth about its main character: yes, he might be great musically, but he’s still suffering a serious mental illness, as he reverts almost to the state of a child. Clara stabs Jon, the rest of the band walk out, and all that’s left is the singer and keyboard player, whose attempt at a gig is a terrible disaster.

With Frank’s normal support system broken apart, all he has left is Jon, now hugely embittered as he realises that his previous fame was all a lie, a public interest in the freak show rather than the music. Jon can’t be Clara, and under the strain breaks himself. In one of the most disturbing scenes of the film (framed as comedic in the trailers) he attempts to force “the head” off Frank’s shoulders, causing the guy to run away, get run over by a car, lose the head, and keep going.

Frank has gone to a point here where we’re apparently supposed to blame Jon for everything (he certainly does) but that never felt right to me while I was watching. Frank needs help, not a weird electric rock/pop band. Jon isn’t equipped to give it, and the result is inevitable.

Fassbender's performance is quite good, and all the better given the extreme requirements of filming.

Fassbender’s performance is quite good, and all the better given the extreme requirements of filming.

The final search for Frank brings Jon to the dive bar where the rest of the band is playing. They seem as warped as ever, only deader inside without their talisman, unwilling to lift a finger to help Jon find him. Jon does so anyway, with the amazing power of social media, and instead of any kind of deeper revelation about Frank’s nature, simply finds a disturbed young man whose delusions were tolerated too much by loving parents.

This sequence actually includes Frank’s funniest (apologising to the wrong man for “pulling off his head) and darkest moments (realising Frank is just Frank, with no set “origin”), the latter of which is strangely terrifying and relieving at the same time. It’s terrible for a young mind to be locked in such a course, but at least Jon can come to realise that he isn’t destined to become crazy just by being around Frank. Still, this more personal look at how Frank lived and lives carries a fair amount of disturbing material with it, helped by the simple way Fassbender’s lined face was actually revealed.

This leads into the final scene, which appears to have been framed as uplifting, but which I found more than a little uncomfortable. Jon reunites Frank with the band in the dive bar. He can’t seem to get his feelings for them out properly, and must resort to a sort of spoken work song apology and declaration of love. As they sing, Jon walks off. I suppose it’s a happy ending insofar as Frank finds his family and support structure again, but in another way it’s quite dark: Jon leaves Frank and the others, adrift in a sea of their own mental problems and with no direction, to their fate, his last glimpse of them being a really strange singalong in a dank setting. The final message from the narrator seems to be “It’s not my problem anymore”. All he wants to do is get out. I’m not sure that’s so uplifting and I certainly did not find any great catharsis from it.

That’s just a brief run through of the film, but it bears mentioning that it has other problems, not least its pacing. The first and last acts are squashed for time in relation to the lengthy middle section, which while being the best is also dragging interminably by the time we get to the botched concert. The clear tonal shift doesn’t help matters in that regard, and the whole last half of the film carries the emotional baggage of Don’s suicide with it, even as it continues to try and make us smile on occasion. The breakdown of Soronprfbs and Frank’s personal deterioration are dark aspects of the story, too dark for the larger light hearted tone that Frank seemingly wants to set right from the off.

In terms of female characters, Frank only really has one, which is Clara. Clara is interesting enough, but just sort of seems a bit too incoherent as a character to be fully enjoyable. She jumps between threatening Jon with a knife, having sex with him, stabbing him with a knife, and then ignoring his pleas to help Frank. She seems caught between being an aggressively dominant woman and being a maternal presence that Frank requires in order to function. Those two roles come to a conflict when Jon attempts to usurp her position, and our final look at her shows a person who is as lost as Frank is really. There’s no real character growth for Clara really, just peeling away the layers to see different aspects of her that were really present from the start.

I sometimes find it hard to put into words why I’m not enthralled by films of this nature, but it simply comes back to my personal taste when it comes to tone I think. Tone is important, and while it is not impossible to mix dark drama with comedy – especially black comedy – there are times when it simply won’t work. I don’t think that the mix, or divide, works very well in Frank. Combined with a few other problems, like the lack of evolution for characters or the slightly unbalanced act/time allowance, it makes for an underwhelming story experience.

In acting terms, Michael Fassbender will probably never play a role like this again, unless he gets into voice acting. While emoting is obviously going to be quite difficult when you’re wearing a papier-mâché head all the time, he does as good a job as you can reasonably expect, with his voice doing as much of the work as it can to make up for the lack of a face. When he is revealed in the last act, the role is simple enough, that of a broken child really. Fassbender is more than good enough to take such a role on. Oh, and he can sing. Who knew?

Domhnall Gleeson, soon to be much more famous internationally (or maybe intergalactically) is playing the real main character, and while he was fairly one note throughout much of the production (exasperated outsider) I still found him fairly enjoyable. He has a comedic talent in regards timing and delivery, even if it’s just narrating his own mindless tweets. Gleeson at least turns it up in the latter stages when the others largely don’t, with a nice mix of desperation, irritation and ultimately heartbreak at the bad situation he has gotten himself and Frank into. His character, of all of them, has the best journey to go on, even if it something as stereotypical as a tale of musical disillusionment, and Gleeson plays it well.

Gyllenhaal apparently rejected the role before taking it later, and reading that doesn’t surprise me at all really. Clara, while being an interesting character, appears to require a very bland acting performance, where Gyllenhaal is mostly required to just whisper threats and be as stony-faced as possible, only coming to life during the violent sex and stabbing scene. That, and she’s not a great singer.

McNairy only has the first half of the film and, much like Gyllenhaal, can do little to enliven a character that is seemingly supposed to be low key, soft spoken and not particularly interesting beyond his sexual perversions.

Visually, Frank matches the craziness of its characters and premise with a succession of desolate landscapes: overcast English beaches turn to dark and muddy Irish fields which turn to Texan deserts. But they’re all shot rather well, and the claustrophobic experience of making an album with Soronprfbs is also brought to the fore during the extended second act, within a wooden cabin where the personalities seem to get bigger and bigger as time goes on. It’s all shot with competence and care, if not with any great ambition really. Social media messages are thrown up on the screen at memorable moments, a nice touch,, and a good visual comparison is created between Jon’s hometown and Frank’s, but I wouldn’t say that Frank has many shots that will stick with me long after having seen it.

It’s in the production details where things are a lot better visually. There’s the head of course, which looks as interesting as you might expect, but there’s also a great skill in the costuming for everyone else, from the random things that Clara throws on, to Jon’s beard, to Frank’s concert make-up before his breakdown. The sets are well created or staged, whichever is applicable, be it the cramped tour van, the cabin or the disgusting mess of a motel where Jon and Fran wind up.

Clara is an unpredictably violent person, and one of Franks strangest characters.

Clara is an unpredictably violent person, and one of Franks strangest characters.

The script is actually rather entertaining, with Jon’s narration driving things forwards amid all of the random and twisted things coming out of everyone else’s mouth, which just sort of fits them. Much of the humorous wordplay comes from an abstract place, watching the random movements and sound recordings of Frank, the arbitrary lyrics that Soronprfbs come up with, or Jon’s journey to meltdown being measured by how many Twitter followers he can find. Along with his increasing exasperation with giving everything and gaining little, it makes for some good lines and jokes (not least “#igavethemmyfuckingnestegg”, slightly funnier than Frank’s appalling “most likeable song ever”). While parts of the script can get a little random and inaccessible at times, this enlivens the first half of the film greatly, just as it increases the sense of darkness by the conclusion.

The music matches the tonal course of the film, whimsical at first but getting darker as time moves on. The actual music of Soronprfbs, while not to my personal taste, was at least an interesting fusion of different elements, culminating in Frank’s “I Love You All”, a memorable, if really warped, declaration of affection for his band.

In terms of themes, insanity, or at least severe mental illness, is obviously a very important one. Frank has some fairly fundamental problems in his mind, ones that don’t really come to the fore until relatively late on in Frank. Don describes as one of the sanest people he’s ever met, and within an hour of the film Don has killed himself while wearing a Frank head. That kind of speaks to the effect that Frank has, which is both positive and extremely negative, and it all comes back to his mental issues.

There is no satisfying explanation, from either Frank or the people who raised him, for the head. There is no satisfying explanation for anybody who seems somewhat unbalanced in Frank, and I suppose that’s the point. Sometimes our psyche is just out of tune and you have to live with it as best as you can. This mental issue is at the heart of everything that Frank is trying to say really, with the final messages seemingly revolving around the idea that insanity can be hard to pick up on, and can badly effect the people who are exposed to it for long enough.

But it also can be an outlet for a large amount of inspiration, musically in Frank’s case, a sort of trade off that leaves Jon sane but musically impotent with Frank unbalanced but a musical prodigy. Jon, at the start, seems to be the sort of person willing to do anything just for the right idea of a song, which is one of the main reasons he decides to go along with Frank and his band. By the end he’s some to realise that the bargain isn’t worth it: becoming as good at music as Frank is in Jon’s eyes comes with too high a cost. It simply isn’t for him, and he walks away. Frank, Clara and the others are comfortable living in that space, without any clear end goal or direction to travel in. They’re already suffering from some mental issues. Jon might regret his lost chance in music, but he can’t stay on that path and be the same person that he was. His attempt to mould the insanity and the inspiration to his own needs – getting the band to the South by Southwest festival and trying to change their “sound” in the process – ends in disaster. Jon is, and always will be, an outsider to the people represented by Soronprfbs.

The truth is that John doesn’t really want to be a musician, when his willingness to compromise on Frank’s musical genre to further the bands interests. He just wants to be famous. He wants more Twitter followers, he wants more Youtube hits. He’s bowled over by a few thousand viewers, not quite realising that this is still small fry in the music world. He’s so obsessed with getting more notoriety – nominally for the band, but really for himself – that he fails to realise what is really going on: the band is seen as a comedy act by its “fans”, who are only interested in it as “car crash” entertainment.

Jon’s self delusion on this point is heavy burden for him to bear, as he ups Franks’ expectations only for the final result to be beyond terrible for everyone involved. In the modern world of social media and mass entertainment, it can be easy to get swept along on a rising tide of popularity without ever really realising what that popularity might actually mean. For Jon, facing people who are seeking out his band only to laugh at them, this is a bitter pill to take, and one of the key inspirations for his decision to walk away at the conclusion. Soronprfbs go back to playing in the darkness, isolated, free from prying eyes so they can be alone with each other and their sound. Jon, presumably, goes home and forgoes any great musical career.

Frank is a hard one to judge. There are great elements here: the acting is generally of a good, or at least acceptable, standard, the script contains plenty of humour in parts and the direction is nothing to complain about. But at the conclusion you might find yourself wondering whether the production team would have been better off just picking a film – either a dark comedy or a dark exploration of human psychosis – and sticking with it, rather than trying to have their cake and eat it too. I suppose it might still be worth a watch though, if only for the first half and some of the more interesting characters.

A somewhat disappointing affair.

A somewhat disappointing affair.

(All images are copyright of Magnolia Pictures).

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