Obscuring the terrifically expressive and sometimes terrifying (“12 Years a Slave”) face of actor Michael Fassbender may seem like sacrilege, but that’s just what director Lenny Abrahamson (“What Richard Did”) does in “Frank,” a film that premiered atSundance but is—appropriately, for reasons that will be explained—also playing this week at South By Southwest. Screenwriters Jon Ronson (“The Men Who Stare at Goats”) and Peter Straughan (“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”) have expanded on a memoir by Ronson to create a wholly unique, comi-tragic portrait of one band’s evolution.
Fassbender stars as the titular Frank, an offbeat pop musician who wears (all the time) a giant plastic head with big blue eyes and a slightly open mouth. Frank leads an American band with an unpronounceable name (the Soronprfbs) who play radically creative but (deliberately) off-putting music (read our review here). While touring the U.K., the band—including Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Nana (real-life drummer Carla Azar), and Baraque (French actor/musician François Civil)—replaces its keyboardist with a rock star-wannabe named Jon (a goofily appealing Domhnall Gleeson), who just happens to be in the right place at the right time. (It should be noted that all the actors perform their own music, and all performance scenes were recorded live, a rare feat.)
As the band sets off for a recording session in Ireland, Gyllenhaal’s role as Frank’s sole protector/maternal figure is challenged by the interloper Jon, who shakes things up with his fresh ideas and high-level ambitions. After almost a year in the Irish countryside, Jon books the Soronprfbs a gig at South By Southwest, and the whole crew sets off for Texas to see if their (modest) social media success can translate to rock stardom. Without giving too much away, doubt and darkness ensue, and the conflicts come to a head (pun intended).
“Frank” explores issues of creative process, mental illness, and the myriad ways we present ourselves to the world. It’s a testament to Fassbender’s acting prowess—and Abrahamson’s direction—that Frank’s giant head can register as surprised, happy, or terrified, depending on the context; he is a physically gifted actor, full stop. We caught up with Abrahamson in Austin to discuss his completely-faux representation of SXSW, Fassbender’s many talents, and Abrahamson’s next film, an adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s best-selling novel, “Room.”
Magnolia Pictures will release “Frank” in theaters later this year.