We’ve read a lot in the last couple of days about Robin Williams’ battle with depression, his lifelong struggle with the illness that eventually claimed his life, and not a few appreciations that effectively linked the “spark of madness” he aphoristically praised with his own mental illness. There’s some truth to the sad clown cliché — in an essay recalling his history of substance abuse and self-harm, Jim Norton wrote that he knows at least eight fellow comedians who committed suicide (the “at least” is what really gets you) — but equating the profundity of an artist’s work with the depth of his or her struggle is a profoundly dangerous act, and sometimes a deadly one.
“Frank,” which opens in theaters this Friday, starts off as a disarming lark. Domhnall Gleeson plays a would-be musician in a small seaside town who falls in with The Soronprfbs, an indescribable art-rock quintet whose leader, Frank (Michael Fassbender) takes the stage in an oversize fiberglass head. But as Jon, who’s drafted into the band after he’s proven that he can play three chords on the keyboard, quickly discovers, Frank never takes the head off: not offstage, not at border crossings (“I have a certificate,” he tells the guard in his muffled voice), not even in the shower. For Jon, who’s always seen his comfortable middle-class life as a barrier to artistic fulfillment, Frank’s oddity is proof that he’s the real deal. He begins surreptitiously posting clips of the band’s rehearsals on social media, and before anyone else knows what’s happened, he’s gotten then an invitation to perform at South by Southwest.
It’s once the band has decamped to America that “Frank” begins to take a darker turn. (I promise to tread lightly with the plot, but mild spoilers follow.) Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the rival keyboardist who’s always regarded Jon with suspicion, grows increasingly temperamental as their “industry showcase” gig approaches. It seems for a while as if she’s engaged in a simple power struggle with Jon: She wants to keep the band small and obscure, Jon wants them to be heard by “millions of people.” Frank bounces between them like a blue-eyed ping-pong ball, too innocent and too disconnected to understand the machinations at work. When Jon shows him their YouTube hits have reached into the 10,000s, Frank sounds out the numerals one by one, as if he’s never considered having to count that high.
Jon Ronson, who wrote “Frank’s” script with Peter Straughan, drew on his own experience playing keyboard with Chris Sievey, better known as Frank Sidebottom, who donned a similarly voluminous papier-mâché head on stage: The scene where the Spronpfrbs’ manager (Scoot McNairy) asks Jon “Can you play C, F and G?” is right out of Ronson’s first-hand account. But once the band leaves town for an isolated cabin to start recording an album, Ronson starts taking his cues from Captain Beefheart, the legendarily eccentric, sometimes dictatorial visionary who eventually quit music for painting, and in America, he shifts models again, this time to Daniel Johnston, whose songs embody a unique kind of unstudied naïveté.
Johnston, as anyone who’s seen Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” knows, is also mentally ill: an “extreme manic depressive with a history of psychotic episodes,” according to his sister. He’s unable to live on his own; once chased a woman until she jumped out the window to get away from him; and in 1990, he had an episode where he believed he was Caspar the Friendly Ghost and forced the plane his father was flying to crash. (Both survived.) As Jason Cohen wrote in Option in 1995:
Johnston’s life and career seem to mirror the lockstep pattern of his illness. Excessive attention always sends him over the edge, the best times inevitable precursors to the worst…. For fans and friends the release of Johnston’s first recordings in three years is a cause for joy. It’s what comes after that’s worrisome.
Although he worked his drug addiction into his standup routine — “Cocaine is God’s way of telling you you’re making too much money” — Williams kept his history of depression private until his 2010 interview with WTF’s Marc Maron. It’s now become inextricable from how we think about him: Who can watch “World’s Greatest Dad,” in which Williams’ character makes his son’s accidental death look like a suicide, and not think of how Williams’ own life ended? But Bobcat Goldthwait’s caustic satire is especially relevant for other reason as well. In the movie, Williams’ frustrated author begins passing off his own writing as his late son’s journals, and the boy, who was widely disliked in life, becomes a martyr: Those who survive him quickly forget who he was and use his death to write their own meanings.
But it’s a mistake, and a terrible one, to think that art is necessarily rooted in anguish, or in illness, especially when it leads people to mythologize their own struggles, or to think that getting help for them might somehow sap their creative juices. (It doesn’t.) There’s an exchange in Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Barton Fink” when John Turturro’s pompous playwright theorizes that theorizes that great writing comes from “a great inner pain.” John Mahoney, playing a transparent stand-in for William Faulkner, fixes him with a withering glare. “Me, I just enjoy making things up,” he drawls. “It’s when I can’t write, I can’t escape myself, I want to rip my head off and run screaming down the street with my balls in a fruit pickers pail.” Robin Williams didn’t become a comedian to share his pain, but he might have done it to help others forget theirs.