As a musician who’s been in a few bands in differing capacities, I’m a little biased toward films like Frank. The quest for musical perfection, much less to master one’s craft or instrument, has always been fraught with great peril and comedy, as you’re constantly comparing yourself to other bands and musicians, either trying to emulate or not do what they’re doing. Making the perfect record by not sounding like anything that has come before becomes the focus of much of Frank’s running time, and it’s just as hilarious as you’d think.
If you’ve ever seen the Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, you can see what it’s like when a real-life band makes an honest-to-gosh artistic effort to make one of the greatest albums ever made. Clashing visions from different members abound, with the writer’s vision often being stepped on and changed without his consent or in favor of being more commercially acceptable. Frank is the comedic twin of I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, with just as much awkwardness and stilted dialogue.
Aspiring novice songwriter Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) has just been recruited as the new keyboard player for Soronprfbs, an American band currently on tour in the UK, where Jon spends his days trying to write pop tracks. Frustrated at his lack of imagination, he goes for a walk and finds the police in a bit of a situation, with Sonorprfbs’ keyboard player trying to drown himself. The rest of the band watch dispassionately as this man tries (unsuccessfully) to end it all; the band’s manager Don (Scoot McNairy), upon Jon telling him that he can play keyboards, tells him to show up at the stage door for that night’s show at 9, off-handedly teaching him the only chords he’ll need to know for the gig.
Once onstage, with Jon serving as proxy for the film’s audience, we see that Soronpfrbs is quite an eccentric, extremely odd band. However, to say that about Soronpfrbs is an insult to the eccentric and odd – these guys are straight up weird. The theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a chain-smoking, nasty, angry woman who won’t take it (and isn’t afraid to get violent onstage) when the other members of the band aren’t playing the songs correctly. Drummer Nana (Carla Azar) and French guitarist Baraque (François Civil) stay quiet and reserved, occasionally piping up to offer their backhanded, subtly-handled vitriol to Jon.
And that brings us to the titular Frank (Michael Fassbender) himself. The lead singer. Here’s what we know about Frank: he’s a very insular, artistic, thoughtful, kind, insightful person, mysteriously adept at handling almost any situation he encounters. He knows how to get the best out of his band and others, and he can get his way just by talking to people one-on-one, including one humorous case involving German vacationers. Oh, and we haven’t even discussed the fact that he wears a gigantic papier-mâché head all the time, even in the shower…
After Don hijacks him to Ireland to record their new record, Jon insinuates himself into Soronpfrbs, trying to make his own statement on the music they’re recording. However, it’s Frank’s vision that’s most important, and Jon relegates himself to playing parts written for him. But when the balance starts tilting in Jon’s direction after a big favor involving money, that’s when the mystery that is Frank starts to unravel and reveal itself.
Frank examines the life of an indie-rock band wanting artistic glory, yet ultimately bowing to the promise of adulation and the almighty dollar. What happens to Frank when he starts to change his approach to music is something a lot of musicians must deal with, but because of Frank’s fragile nature, the toll it takes is comically exaggerated to a hilarious, yet sad extent. It’s as if Jon, though wanting to be a part of something special, winds up being the East Wind that shakes everything around and knocks the band loose from its moorings, and not in a good way. His efforts to demystify the creation process through Twitter posts (they’re used to narrate the film somewhat) and YouTube videos wind up making Soronpfrbs a sideshow, focusing more on their image rather than the music itself.
Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan’s screenplay is deft and poignant, hitting all the clichéd rockstar beats and promptly turning them upside-down. Soronpfrbs’ travels (and travails) from the UK to Ireland to the South By Southwest expo in Austin, Texas are spiked with your typical This is Spinal Tap-type shenanigans, replete with sex, drugs, and, of course, rock ‘n’ roll, and a little bit of Yoko Ono to boot. Gleeson’s Jon is earnest and really wants what he thinks is best for the band, but it’s not what the band wants. His constant drive to win this perceived popularity contest is about as far away as you can get from what the band’s vision is, and Gleeson plays this (not intentionally) greedy role well. Balancing him out is the ferocious Maggie Gyllenhaal, whose Clara is that member of the band who puts the band’s musical and artistic integrity over the health and well-being of the band members themselves.
Truthfully, when I first saw this film, I had no idea Michael Fassbender was the one playing Frank. His performance relies completely on voice and physical nuance, as his face is hidden during the movie, and he carries it off brilliantly. Having to go from Zen-like calm to frenetic loss of control over the space of an entire movie with only one facial expression – that of the mask he wears – is no easy feat, but Fassbender somehow manages to make even that one expression convey delight, bewilderment, sadness, confusion, and solitude. By holding his body or inflecting his speech in certain ways, he makes Frank a wonderful character to behold.
Special notice must also be given to Scoot McNairy, playing Don with a very Sam Rockwell-ish type feel, wry and cutting with every word and action. The guidance he gives to Jon helps us to understand Soronpfrbs and its members a whole lot more, and he’s the unsung hero of the whole project. The entire ensemble and script of Frank make this film not as slapstickish as the aforementioned This is Spinal Tap. It’s rather like a more artsy version of That Thing You Do!, right down to the trappings of rock music life that pull people apart rather than bring them together, and I swear it’s sly, subtle fun.