The look of Frank’s title character is based on English musician and comedian Chris Sievey’s guise Frank Sidebottom, very much a cult figure in the UK during the 1980s and 90s but virtually unknown outside of the island. (International audiences may recently have got a glimpse of the late Sievey’s material as Sidebottom in one memorable sequence of Filth.) Lenny Abrahamson’s film, however, is not the story of Frank Sidebottom, with co-writer Jon Ronson instead taking inspiration from his own time as a keyboardist for Sievey in order to explore fictional territory.
Ronson’s fictional stand-in in Frank is, appropriately enough, named Jon, and is played by Domnhall Gleeson. He is a small-town office stooge who dreams of escaping his humdrum life with musical pursuits, despite an apparent lack of notable talent beyond mere competency. (One amusing sequence sees a long-gestating creative breakthrough in his bedroom turn to shambles when he realises he’s been playing the established song “It Must Be Love”, first written by Labi Siffre but popularised in the UK by ska band Madness.) He has a chance encounter on a beach with an intimidating and enigmatic band called The Soronprfbs, in which he ends up becoming their keyboardist for the night when their regular player tries to commit suicide in the sea. (Again, this isn’t the chirpiest of comedies.) The show goes to shit, but Jon is captivated and inspired by Fassbender’s mysterious Frank, a deadpan oddball who wears a big papier-mâché head over his own head at all times, even when not on stage performing the group’s unusual compositions.
Through strange circumstances, Jon ends up being invited to help record The Soronprfbs’s album in an isolated cabin. The bandmates, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Clara among them, are consistently hostile, but Jon develops a rapport with tortured manager Don (Scoot McNairy) and eventually Frank, the apparent musical genius who Jon sees as his meal ticket to making it big. (“I can’t wait to dive into the creative maelstrom!”) Jon’s story in Frank is that of the hanger-on figure, a harsh exploration of how some people are unfortunately destined to never rise above mediocrity (and barely even that). Not that he realises this very quickly, making himself the voice for a social media campaign regarding the band.
Their maddening year-long recording process sees The Soronprfbs gain large Twitter and YouTube followings, though Jon keeps his documentation from them until an invite to perform at SXSW beckons. The bandmates hate the idea even more than they hate Jon, but Frank becomes very excited by the prospect, or so it seems, and they eventually head for the States. Up until the States trip, Frank’s eccentricities are largely played for laughs or kooky atmosphere. Only when there does Jon’s notion of the mad rock genius myth — “Miserable childhood. Mental illness. Where do I find that sort of inspiration?” — start to properly unravel. Frank steers away from almost-Almost Famous territory and into something familiar to anyone who’s seen The Devil and Daniel Johnston; director Abrahamson carries his deft balancing of tonal shifts from his prior films Adam & Paul and What Richard Did over to this effort.
Here both Jon and the papier-mâché-headed Frank are the driving forces for a 21st century tale of fame in the social media age, confused and misguided ambition, and the dangerous glamorisation that often occurs when mental torment and artistic expression stem from the same source. Illness in artists can be inspiring at times, but the myth that madness always equals poetic insight is very much defused here.
Frank is definitely not completely the eccentric laugh-fest one might expect when hearing of a film in which Michael Fassbender travels to the SXSW festival to sing and dance in a massive mask he wears at all times. Though there is a lot of humour, there’s an often piercing vulnerability and darkness at its core, though bursts of optimism do shine through and they do so brightly; the note — or rather notes, to allude to its musical nature — that the film ends on may be its best moment, though what largely endures from its admittedly baggy nature is that lens of critical sanity it brings to its underlying uncomfortable truths. The mask may cover the wounds, but Frank the film is, well, frank about what lies beneath.
— Josh Slater-Williams