Frank is a high concept, heartrending film

Frank

Directed by Leonard Abrahamson

United Kingdom, 2014

The pitch for Frank sounds like it might fall somewhere between Rubber and Kevin Smith’s upcoming Tusk: films that seem predicated on a dare, a bet, a drunken night. But Frank is a high concept film masquerading as low concept.

Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is a middle-class, IT-by-day, aspiring musician who blames his inability to write compelling lyrics on his lack of a dark, crippling past. He lucks into a gig as a keyboardist for a band headed by the charismatic but enigmatic Frank (Michael Fassbender) – a vocalist who wears a giant paper maché head at all times – and enters a mysterious, sometimes dangerous, world of musician dynamics.

Frank film with Michael Fassbender

Frank is hard to categorize. To call it a drama feels cheap: that or “independent” so often the label for the unlabelable. It’s funny but it isn’t a comedy; it’s dark but it isn’t a thriller; it’s an ironic look at the music industry but, departed keyboardists rhyming with departed drummers aside, it isn’t Spinal Tap. If anything, Frank is heartfelt. It feels almost like a challenge: make me all tingly inside despite the fact that your main character will wear a bulbous cartoon head, Maggie Gyllenhaal will do her best B-film ice queen, and Twitter and YouTube references will abound.

To call Fassbender a chameleon would be a bad joke. When’s the last time a leading actor took on a role that would obscure his face for nearly the whole film – superhero movies aside – and still commanded the screen? That he’s surrounded by a more-then-capable cast – Scoot McNairy steals a few scenes in here, as he’s want to do, in the role of Don, the keyboardist before Jon came along – makes his turn as Frank all the more poignant. Sporting a singing voice that lands like an Ian Curtis-Jim Morrison hybrid he’s captivating from his first electric appearance on-screen to his final, heartrending one.

The scenester music industry takedown is quite good: an invitation to hip SXSW based solely on internet videos showing little music and a lot of “reality TV”; an unpronounceable band name that no one – not even the band – seems to know how to say; a lengthy and self-indulgent recording session that yields no recognizable results.

Director Lenny Abrahamson and writers Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan seem to have little regard for the state of modern music. But they do care about music and the last scene of the film (indeed, the last 15 minutes) are so genuine and beautiful that the After Hours-like hijinks of all that came before – while certainly entertaining and captivating – feel like a hell of a set before an awe-inducing encore.

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