Written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson (as Leonard Abrahamson)
Artistic personalities from all walks of life seem to dance to the beat of their own distinctive drums. The creative process and all its motivations and manipulations is what makes these dedicated artists strive for their performing juices. In filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson’s unconventional and infectiously wry musical dramedy Frank we are introduced to a portrait of an eccentric lead singer and his dysfunctional experimental pop band as they go through the odd-like motions of creativity. Not since Alan Parker’s 1991 The Commitments has there been a fictional big screen band so humorously sordid in song and misguided soul.
Frank could have been easily dismissed as a contrived and gimmicky inside joke about the artistry behind the anatomy of an off-kilter musical act. However, Abrahamson shrewdly presents his wacky musicians as interesting specimens for progression and promise and the unstable foundation for which these performers arrive at their craft. Determination, fear, mental illness, poetic pulses, high expectations, low self-esteem–all are infused in the low-key madcap antics that personify the nutty charm of Frank. There is a sketchy rawness and unhinged quality about Abrahamson’s lyrical narrative that resonates so soundly in amusing, head-scratching fashion.
Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson) is an aspiring keyboardist that fancies making it big in the world of music beyond his 9-to-5 daytime office job. Although talented Jon finds it rather difficult trying to showcase his musical prowess and sharpening up his songwriting skills. It is not until accidentally coming across a short, bearded and disheveled Don (Scott McNairy) during a police intervention for an attempted drowning that Jon finds an avenue to demonstrate his musical ambitions. Don happens to be a manager and sound engineer for a local band in the area as he sits on the sidelines witnessing his keyboardist trying to end his life in the town’s waterway. Soon, Jon receives an invitation from Don to bring his brand of keyboarding skills down to the nightclub where his band will be performing a gig that very same evening.
Upon meeting up with Don at the club to jam with the band that he is currently unfamiliar with at the moment Jon is struck by one thing–the presence of the musical group’s lead singer Frank (Michael Fassbender). Specifically, Frank dons a largely shaped plaster oval head with painted-on bulging green eyes that covers his noggin. Yet under that huge masking head Jon quickly discovers the mysterious energy and personal magnetism that Frank displays around the bandmates. Frank is the undisputed leader and his influence lingers over these bizarre, insulated musicians.
Also, Jon would learn of the motley crew that he is asked to play along with on stage as their transgressions are revealed…particularly by theremin instrumentalist Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) whose spitfire demeanor is convincingly acidic. It is assumed that Clara is indeed Frank’s loyal main squeeze and the handler of his personal welfare within the group dynamic. Additionally, there is a goth French-speaking guitarist (Francois Civil) that holds major contempt for Jon’s inclusion in the band. The female percussionist (Carla Azar) is practically a mute and background observer. Jon even discovers Don’s beleaguered background as a mental patient that became buddies with Frank in the medical facility they stayed at together. It is clear that Don holds high reverence for Frank and regards him as genius regardless of how Jon is questioning his strange friend’s “plaster-headed persona”. Oh, one more thing…Don is trying to cure his craving for sexual fixations on mannequin women but now is willing to give real women a chance for a change. Just what has Jon gotten himself into with this collection of walking wounded free spirits?
It would be at an Irish countryside cottage where Don would lead the others to congregate in an effort to make an album in an attempt to get the band’s visibility factor noticeable. It is here that Jon bonds with Frank after his distant curiosities about the plastered big-headed singer. As Frank accepts Jon and relishes his gradual chats and feedback this does not bode well for the overprotective Clara whose control and nurturing tendencies over her precious Frank is compromised and threatened by Jon’s closeness. Jon is noticing sociopath Clara’s clinging of Frank and informs her that he is there to stay and function as the keyboard player regardless of her intense objections. After Don’s suicide unfolds it is apparent that Jon’s existence becomes more advantageous for Frank to lean on and listen to concerning the direction of the band. But Clara resists Jon’s emerging role as the mouthpiece for the band’s road to success and wants to remain within the same realm that her bandmates have always identified with prior to Jon’s arrival. Jon is even targeted more harshly by Clara when it is discovered that he has been documenting (thru social media) the behind-the-scenes creative sessions of music the band has been exposed to thanks to Frank’s unorthodox methods of preparation. Hence, Frank and the group become online sensations–a notoriety that earns them an invite to a publicized music festival in Texas. Can Frank and company cope with the devoted following that Jon has built up for them? Will the unpredictability of the off-balanced band ruin the dream Jon had of finally getting his music heard on a grand scale of admiring crowds?
Frank is sharply witty and warped in its depiction of the pursuit of artistry and the uncertainties of human behavior that touch such artistic instincts and idiosyncrasies. Fassbender, an Oscar nominee for last year’s superb slavery period piece in 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, turns in another hypnotic performance as the enigmatic Frank, a flawed yet bundle of creative exuberance under a smothering gigantic head that hides the pain and pageantry of a vibrant performer lost in confusion. Gleeson brings both playfulness and profound insight as the straight man Jon assimilating among the sound-searching wackos that foster his musical vibes. The underrated Gyllenhaal continues to provide complex feminine characterizations and her Clara is a perfect example of an unsteady siren with shades of hostility and provocativeness.
Essentially, Frank will be a welcomed musical note to one’s ears.