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Can We Be FRANK? What Semi-Fictional Band “The Soronprfbs” Means for Music

Can We Be FRANK? What Semi-Fictional Band "The Soronprfbs" Means for Music

The
drummer doesn’t speak. The lead guitarist speaks only French. The
theremin player is homicidal. The original keyboardist has been fired,
and now acts as roadie and manager. The replacement keyboardist has been
sectioned by local authorities after a suicide attempt. The replacement
for the replacement has never played in a band before. And the lead
singer wears a giant Frank Sidebottom head
at all times; no one in the band knows his last name or has ever seen
his face. Nor has the band ever successfully completed a gig or recorded
a single track. 

  
This is the state of affairs for the unpronounceable and obscure band “The Soronprfbs”—the subject of Frankas the film opens. What Frank asks
us to be most perplexed by, however, is not the set of personalities that
comprise the Soronprfbs but the music itself. Indeed, in play throughout
Frank is a question almost
always answered in the affirmative in music biopics, and in the negative
in mockumentaries: “Is the music any good?” Frank
not only straddles the biopic and mockumentary genres, but also answers
this question only ambiguously: “Maybe.” (And adds, implicitly, “Does
it matter?”)
At
the center of the Soronprfbs is “Frank,” a mysterious former asylum
inmate from Kansas whose commitment to his obtuse but possibly brilliant
musical vision calls to mind the late Syd Barrett. When Jon, an
ambitious but not particularly talented keyboardist, is recruited into
the Soronprfbs on an emergency basis, an unstated tug of war between
Frank and his newest band member is initiated, with the soul of the
Soronprfbs in the balance. The allegory behind the film’s iconic
struggle is reasonably well-defined: how do artists balance their
materialist ambitions and popular sensibilities with the antisocial and
tormented genius of authentic inspiration? It’s a question easily
answered when and where ambition and inspiration conjoin to produce a
popular sound (cf. Taylor Swift) or one embraced by a small but
committed legion of fans (cf. Deafheaven), but what about when the
ambition and inspiration
are real, but the sound they produce lies well outside any listener’s
present interest or even understanding? 
It’s
telling that Jon helps the Soronprfbs gain a grassroots following not
so much through dissemination of the band’s songs, but by using social
media (Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube) to draw attention to the band’s
compositional process and camera-ready idiosyncracies. When the band
finally shows up at SXSW, many have heard of them but almost no one
knows their music–a perfect statement on how
social media drives an interest in artists that’s independent from the
art they make. Does this discrepancy between social media buzz and
genuine appreciation suggest that the Soronprfbs are mere poseurs? Frank
asks us to consider that perhaps there’s no such thing as a poseur
anymore, as (a) even self-consciously idiosyncratic music can be entirely
earnest, and (b) ultimately the excitement a band generates in and
around the national music scene has a longer-lasting impact than the
music itself.
To be clear, though, the Soronprfbs—in the opinion of this writer—are pretty great. The Frank
OST is an album of music experiments that’s eminently listenable; cross
the Doors with the United States of America and a skin-of-their-teeth
sixties garage band like the Lemon Drops and you’ve got a good idea of
what the Soronprfbs sound like. It’s Grinderman meets the Hombres;
Phosphorescent meets Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
In other words, there’s a tripped-out, DIY sensibility behind the
Soronprfbs that’s mirrored in more contemporary acts like Neutral Milk
Hotel and the other members of the Elephant Six Collective. That the
Soronprfbs are only semi-fictional—adding to the “meta” quality of a film whose
OST includes the album whose creation it documents, the Soronprfbs have actually played some live shows—only adds to the sense that Frank is a movie about the artist’s ethos in both our own and previous eras.

While
Michael Fassbender’s voice won’t win any awards, there’s something
winning about the improvisational sound of the Soronprfbs. If the New
Sincerity’s self-consciously hip earnestness—equally aware of and
committed to its studied but joyful eccentricities—had a sound, it
might well be this. Frank
cautions us, however, that in this new age of post-deconstructive
reconstruction, a swing to either of the most eligible extremes set
before the artist (the self-consciousness of ambition or the
inspirations of eccentricity) can be destructive. In the end, it’s not
clear whether the Soronprfbs can survive as both a popular and
an organically inspired band without inhabiting—and inhabiting
only—the ambiguous middle spaces of social media and barely-heard first
albums. While in the real world the Soronprfbs, along with Fassbender,
may give a well-received concert or two, or even appear (as they did) on
The Colbert Report, in the film
both the Klieg lights of SXSW and the bohemian isolation of a recording
studio nestled deep in the English woods pose terminal dangers to the
group. Maybe, in the
Internet Age, the pressures of a stage “IRL” mark the beginning of the
end for certain forms of art, while situation in the midst of perpetual
buzz and an ever-elusive artistic vision allows artists the room they
require to explore new methods of creation.

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is
presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of
Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for
The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.

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