The line between genius and insanity is often a thin and rather blurred one. One person’s guru might be another’s nutcase, and when the internet is involved, it’s even harder to tell the difference. These types of distinctions are made even hazier in the avant-garde music scene when the very idea of what is or is not music gets turned on its head. The word “head” is very apt about these topics when in relation to the new film Frank, in which the title character, either a musical genius or a complete lunatic, wears a giant papier-mache head that he never removes. His story is seen through the eyes of a young wannabe rock star who uses Frank as both an idol and a springboard. But, it’s a comedy, so there’s weird laughs along the way.
Based partially on writer Jon Ronson’s exploits working with Chris Sievey, who spent much of his career sporting a fiberglass head and calling himself Frank Sidebottom, as well as other weird musicians like Captain Beefheart and Daniel Johnston, Frank is the incredibly weird, slightly absurdist, but ultimately very warm story of people attempting to make an album from the fevered mind of their strange leader, Frank (played by Michael Fassbender). Frank means a lot of things to a lot of people, and “Frank” even means a lot to the real Frank inside, but whether or not he’s more than simply a loony in a fake head is very much at the center of the film, and whether or not that actually matters.
The film follows Jon, played by Domhnall Gleeson, an English lad who longs of being a famous rock star. He writes garbage songs but Tweets and Tumbls about it like he’s the next David Bowie. One day whilst out walking, he happens to see policemen attempting to pull a man who apparently has lost his mind out of the ocean, as he attempted to drown himself. Jon quickly learns that the man is the keyboard player in a band with an unpronounceable name from America. Jon offhandedly tells the band’s manager, Don (Scoot McNairy), that he plays keyboards and he’s asked to join the band on stage. It goes well for about 3 minutes with the strange singer in a big fake head, the severe theramin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), guitarist, and drummer, but it soon devolves into a heated row. Clearly these people are a bit more volatile than Jon expected.
After that, and out of the blue, Don calls Jon to join the band on a trip to Ireland to play music. Jon assumes it’s only for the weekend but he soon learns it’s to live in a cabin to record Frank’s album, which will not be on tape at all until every element is absolutely perfect. It takes months. All the while, Jon is blogging and recording the often bizarre sessions to post to YouTube where he is slowly garnering a following of people interested in this very unlikely group of musicians. The one thing that is constant throughout the year’s recording is that Clara hates Jon’s guts. Slowly, though, Jon and Frank begin a kind of friendship which gets put to the test when the band is suddenly (and because of Jon) offered a chance to play at South By Southwest.
Despite how utterly strange the characters and subject matter are, Frank is possibly one of the most charming movies I’ve seen in a long time. And it’s not quirky for the sake of being quirky, in the kind of chimey-soundtrack-and-doe-eyed-staring way that a lot of indie comedies are. The film doesn’t pull punches or try to claim that anyone is any better or worse than they appear. It’s just people who are weird doing things they are passionate about, and that’s quite refreshing. Frank wants more than anything to make the perfect record and, in their own ways and for their own reasons, the other members of the band want to facilitate this goal.
Gleeson is equal parts likable and twatty (in the British sense) as Jon, a true wannabe, but he does a terrific job throughout. Gyllenhaal turns in one of her best performances to date playing the cold and possibly homicidal member of the band who has been taking care of Frank for years. She hates everything not music or Frank related and it’s funny how well she balances frightening with strangely alluring. McNairy shines as the one whom everyone acknowledges is crazy. Fassbender has the hardest job of all being able to convey all the emotions and complex nuances of the Frank character all from behind a very creepy and silly-looking giant head. Ultimately, it’s through this performance that the heart of the movie is found.
Is Frank a god or a man, a child or a guru? He’s anything to anyone, and that’s what’s really lovely and touching about the film Frank. In the end, maybe it doesn’t matter whether you can see a man’s face or not, or whether who you think you know is really who you know if they mean something to you. We’ve all known a “Frank” in our day that way want to know and understand, but some people are unknowable. Just like the film, it’s best if you just watch and experience.