Sundance 2014: ‘Frank’ a wildly eccentric look at creativity, ego, and mental instability

Frank
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender, and Domhnall Gleeson in “Frank”

Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank is brash and unflinching in its depiction of the creative process during its most raw stages and how outside influences who are overly concerned with fame can not only corrupt a unique sound, but deeply disturb a musician working through profound problems. The film is loosely based on a character that late musician and comedian Chris Sievey hatched. Frank completely diverges from Sievey’s real-life story apart from the fact that his character wore a giant papier-mache head. Fragile and combustible artists come together in this story penned by Peter Straughan and Jon Ronson (who collaborated with Sievey’s Frank) to immerse the audience in total chaos. Not knowing where these characters are going or who to root for, this is a film to admire for how it upends expectations of character development and completely stomps on celebrating normative standards of success.

The narration comes from Jon’s (Domnhall Gleeson) thoughts on his blog and Twitter feed. He obsesses over becoming a “successful” musician and building a lasting legacy. When the keyboardist of a strange band has a mental breakdown,  an opportunity presents itself and he joins a motley crew of screwball talent that surrounds the mysterious personality Frank. Soon, he is living a solitary life in a remote cabin with them as they indefinitely work on an album. Jon’s social media fixation gives the film a fresh feel but also highlights how desperately he wants to condense the musicians around him into marketable categories and find an audience to fulfill his constant need for recognition. His cutesy and angst-ridden hashtags become repulsive as we get to know the rest of the band, who feels no need to broadcast their problems by simplified means. If anything, the band’s music provides an outlet for their complicated emotions that can’t be compressed. Is Jon truly a parasite or someone who just wants to procure the praise that he thinks the band deserves? Jon believes he is adept at comprehending their music and has a mastery of lyrics, but Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) isn’t buying him at all. Gyllenhaal turns in a fiercely venomous performance as Clara, a musician who wants to keep Frank’s band independent for what she thinks are good reasons. She broods over the repercussions of what she sees as Jon’s incompetence just as much as Frank welcomes the young man’s naivete as a gift. The narrative tug-of-war over whether Jon is hurting or helping the band’s situation gives the audience ample time to ruminate over what finding a broader listening base may mean for a band. The demented aspects of the film are in tune with rhythmic violations that the band delves into and the lyrical minimalism that sometimes hits good emotional keys before returning to nonsensical improvisation.

Frank is relentlessly positive and a perfectionist who just wants to play music. Fassbender’s plain-spoken American accent is at first off-putting but it slowly gels with the film’s overall bizarre tone. Wearing a giant fake head suits the purpose of being the unequivocal band leader and lends mystery to the perplexing talent he omits with every action. Fassbender is savvy at articulating much without the aid of facial expressions. Even though this cult of innovation is build around him, it’s clear that Frank is awfully weak when made to face his limitations. He is the focal point of strength for the band but Frank becoming easily emotionally overwrought is an element of intrigue and turmoil that leads us to believe that his instability under pressure will increasingly factor into how successful they could become. The possibility of mental illness in Clara, Frank, and the other band members factor heavily into the world of Frank. The creative collective it paints contains characters that are pained with something beyond mere insecurity. There is damage or the risk of damage in almost all of their actions. This air of spontaneity doesn’t let Frank ever veer into boring territory.

It’s wonderful to see Fassbender take on a role that bears such creative risk with little possibility of becoming a popular, widely seen film. Branding a film around a papier-mache head and not a recognizable face like Fassbender’s is a courageous leap that cleverly keeps in line with the independent spirit that the film so righteously asserts. It’s a story that is genuinely out there, delivers on threats, and doesn’t make important emotional connections until its final moments. Frank is an independent movie to seek out for its worthwhile social commentary on the delicate, often preposterous, and sometimes sacred act of creating.

— Lane Scarberry

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