It's safe to say that I won't see anything else like “Frank” this year, because I don't think there's a chance anyone's going to make anything else like “Frank” this year.
Written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan, who previously collaborated on the adaptation of Ronson's book “The Men Who Stared At Goats,” this is the story of an ambitious young musician named Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) who is struggling to define his own voice as a songwriter. He crosses paths with Soronprfbs, a very strange band as he watches their keyboardist try to drown himself, and thanks to that meltdown, Jon is given a chance to play with them.
What he doesn't realize until he gets to the run-through is that their lead singer, Frank (Michael Fassbender), performs wearing a giant sculpted head. More than that, though, he wears it everywhere, all the time. No one in the band says they've ever seen him with it off, and he won't directly acknowledge it in conversation. It's simply part of his identity, and Jon quickly jumps in, convinced he's finally found his tribe.
In real life, Ronson was part of a band called the Oh Blimey Big Band, which served as back-up to a character named Frank Sidebottom, an alternative persona to Chris Sievey, an English comedian. Frank SIdebottom always performed in a giant false head, and the backstory that Sievey created for the character is similar to what we eventually learn about Frank in the film. In creating the film, though, it appears that Ronson and Straughan also drew on the stories of some other modern musical fringe figures like Wesley Willis or Daniel Johnston, creating something much sadder and stranger than the true story.
Don (Scoot McNairy) is the road manager trying to hold all of this weirdness together, and he's the one person who seems to welcome Jon to the band. Frank is inscrutable. He seems to like Jon's music one day, then reject it completely another, and Jon finds himself working harder and harder trying to figure out what he can contribute to what he sees as a grand artistic experiment. He encounters outright hostility from Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and it's obvious that Frank doesn't have a master plan.
For a little while, the film follows the trajectory of a traditional music biopic. The band starts to come together, and success starts to assert itself. Jon gets them into the SXSW roster and they take a trip together to Austin. But there are signs that all is not well with Frank, or rather, there are signs beyond the fact that he always wears a giant fiberglass head, and as things start to fall apart, Jon finds himself more confused than ever about the point of the band.
Ultimately, that seems to me to be the point of the film itself. Aside from being a very sad character study, the film deals with the difference between art as commerce and art as a survival mechanism and just how far apart those goals really are. Jon's fooling himself at the start of the film, thinking he's an artist. He sees music as a means to an end, a way to get himself out of his town, a way to make money. Sure, he loves music, but there's something larger that he's chasing in his life. That's not the case with Frank. Without giving up the film's secrets, it is safe to say that everything Frank does, he does without consideration for what it might get him or without any goal beyond the art itself.
“Frank” rides a really strange tone, and director Lenny Abrahamson deserves credit for how he manages to make the strange and the sad and the funny all feel like it's part of the same film. This couldn't have been easy, and the music by Stephen Rennicks works well both creatively and emotionally. I am surprised by just how expressive Michael Fassbender manages to be. The giant mask could be a hindrance to performance, but he does a great job of letting Frank's physicality speak for him. Gleeson, who was so good in last year's “About Time,” is excellent as Jon, and as he struggles to make sense of the world he's plunged into, he is the right guide for the audience.
It's a lean film, surprisingly simple, but it packs a hefty punch. “Frank” has some smart and cogent points about how the same delicacy that makes some people the exact kind of empathy batteries that enables them to be artists is what makes it impossible for them to deal with the world, and I have a feeling it's going to stick with me.
“Frank” is in limited release today.