Are some so-called “diamonds in the rough” so special they can only exist on the fringes? When a rare species enters the ecosystem of the mainstream, does its unique needs break down in a polluted environment? These are some of the ideas expressed in “Frank,” an off-the-wall and terrific paean to misfits and freaks, their dreams and visions.
In a quaint English town, the naïve, ginger-haired dreamer Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) lives a placid but utterly charmless life. A cubicle drone, he tweets out utterly banal thoughts (“Panini with cheese and ham #livingthedream”), but Jon’s waking life takes a backseat to the songs he’s constantly composing in his head. A wannabe musician, Jon has no outlet for his songs. Right on cue, Jon’s universe is transformed when he meets a strange, dysfunctional psych-rock outsider band (think a Shaggs-y version of the Velvet Underground meets Captain Beefheart and Daniel Johnston), the unpronounceable and cultish Soronprfbs, who have lost their keyboardist to madness (who tried to drown himself on a frigid English beachfront). With the band in town for a gig, Jon offhandedly offers his keyboard skills (he can play F, C & A), and much to his surprise, the band’s unhinged manager Doug (Scoot McNairy), gives the lad a chance to fill in for the evening. The performance is a disaster, but Jon is invited to join the band anyhow. And when the ramshackle group retreats to a cabin in the woods in Ireland to record a new album, their adventure begins. The experience is initially transformative to the guileless, way out of his depth Jon, but it eventually begins to take on a much darker edge.
Always jamming with wild, feral abandon, Soronprfbs consists of Frank (Michael Fassbender), the damaged, Syd Barrett-like musical genius of the group who suffers from an “above board” medical condition requiring that he must wear a papier-mâché head at all times; Clara (a scene-stealing Maggie Gyllenhaal), a belligerent and humorless synth/theremin/noisemaker; Baraque (Francoise Civil), the French-only speaking bassist/guitarist; and the aloof Nana (multi-instrumentalist Carla Azar of Autolux, collaborator with PJ Harvey, Jack White), the Moe Tucker-like drummer.
Consumed with being as brilliant and inspired as Frank, Jon attempts to channel his own dysfunction, seeing it as the key to unlocking his genius. Ostracized and often humiliated by the band who have little respect for him —especially by the anti-mainstream dead-ender Clara, who treats him with suspicious disgust— Jon finds the trauma to fuel his creativity. And while Soronprfbs are happy to hang out on the fringes, Jon has bigger dreams for the band, documenting their album making process on Twitter and YouTube to the extent that a following emerges and a spotlight at the SXSW Music Festival is secured. But as their pilgrimage to American begins, Jon’s dreams of the spotlight begin to clash with the rest of musicians, especially Clara (often with hysterically funny results). Perhaps one of the most satisfying character arcs in recent memory occurs when Jon comes to the realization that, without spoiling too much, he’s a total hindrance to this band.
Like a mutated “Inside Lleywn Davis,” failure isn’t so much Jon or Soronprfbs problem as much as it is their clashing visions of what makes the world beautiful. Ultimately Jon is a charlatan, but he does make some counter-intuitively heroic moves. If you’ve been in bands, toured the world or even spent five minutes in a basement with friends making music, “Frank” vividly captures the complex, often tense and straining push-and-pull dynamics of musical collaboration between four or more people.
The film also touches upon issues of mental illness, with Doug and Frank having met in a mental institution, and some Asperger’s-like glitches clearly behind Frank’s odd behavior. But any attempts to figure out exactly what’s wrong with Fassbender’s character is would largely miss the point of a movie that celebrates peculiarity. Comedy is the MVP in “Frank,” coming in so many laugh-out-loud little flavors and shades, delivering moments of hilariously cruel mean-spiritedness, with a deliciously devilish little glint.
Unlike any film you’ve seen in recent memory, this rare bird (written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan) harks back to the energy and spirit of Richard Ayoade’s “Submarine,” but minus the stylistic visual flourishes. Directed by celebrated Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson (“Adam & Paul” and the tonally opposite “What Richard Did“), “Frank” might be unconventional, but the direction largely keeps its style straight, letting the performances, musical or otherwise, shine. And where the filmmaking works best is in the editing, which captures the energy and mania, as well as the perfect deadpan absurdity of the comedy within.
The music, composed by Stephen Rennicks, instantly places him on the map as one to watch (or listen for, rather), and perhaps most impressive is the fact that every note in the film emanates from the actors playing live to the camera. Much like the cacophonic interpersonal dynamics of the band, Soronprfbs is discordant, chaotic, and noisy, but like the Velvet Underground, there’s always a sublime tune swaying beneath the madness (the soundtrack will be a must-own for music heads and one particular song at the film’s conclusion is beautifully moving and transcendent).
While many are already focusing on the conceit of Michael Fassbender wearing a papier-mâché head for much of the film and some of its odder elements, you’ll likely be too caught up in the deeply inventive, playful and idiosyncratic whole to give it much thought. And though some pundits may claim that “Frank” may be too strange for the average moviegoer, those with a working understanding of modern day music and the struggles of artists should easily empathize. The bizarrely brilliant “Frank” demonstrates that quirkiness need not be a four-letter word in the language of movies. It certainly won’t be for everyone, but this sublime and strikingly original film is mandatory watching for the adventurous viewer. [A]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.