“I say, tell everyone everything. Why cover anything up, right?”
Remember those balancing bird toys as kids? The ones where you’d put the beak on the tip of your finger and the entire figure would magically float, defying gravity and the laws of physics? Frank is just that, a frenetic story full of harnessed energy that’s placed on a singular crucial balancing point. This picture could have so easily been a joke. But instead it grabs its premise by the reigns and never eases up on the zany tone it establishes. Surprisingly, to me at least, it is absolutely hilarious. And those laughs open us up, make us willing to believe just a little bit more, so when the dramatic moments surface you’ll be pummeled with emotion. Frank is a sharp comedy laced with deserved drama.
Walking through the streets of London in search of musical inspiration, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is an aspiring young musician with little talent. He still lives with his parents and spends his free time recording music in his bedroom, clearly wanting to make it his way of life rather than spending time in an office. He’s decent with a keyboard, but he’s no Rick Wakeman of the band Yes. Luckily good fortune finds him and he lands a one night gig playing for a band in town. And that’s where the enigmatic Frank enters the picture.
Donning his paper mache head with oversized features, a man simply known as Frank (Michael Fassbender) takes the stage and our attention all at once. He leads a band that kinda sorta has a name but that’s not important. There are two foreigners; Nana (Carla Azar) is the percussionist on drums while Baraque (Francois Civil) plays guitar. On the omnichord is Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a grown woman seemingly stuck in the Riot grrrl wave of the 90’s. She’d fit right in at an underground French nightclub with her black attire and relentless chain smoking. The redheaded Jon clearly doesn’t fit in with these three people, and he never does. But that’s not the case with Frank. In all his eccentricity and complexity, Frank’s able to expose different sides to people, because why cover anything up right? As a man wearing a fake head, even in the shower, it’s pretty clear there are secrets burried beneath those big blue eyes.
Jon’s asked to drop everything and join the band in Ireland to record their album, and from there I’ll keep mum on plot details. What’s truly amazing to me is that the story is based on a real person. One of the screenwriters, Jon Ronson, actually based some of this on his past experiences and encounters. Chris Sievey, aka Frank Sidebottom when wearing an identical head, was the leader of the Oh Blimey Big Band in the late 80’s. Even writing this now I’m baffled that such a character actually did exist. Seriously, click on the links and look him up. It’s beyond comprehension.
There are two standouts in the cast. First, as road manager and former keyboardist Don (Scoot McNairy), we get a superb supporting performance. McNairy is such an underrated actor, and somehow he’s able to make us like and sympathize with a trashy man who gets off on having sex with mannequins. Yes, you read that correctly. But as the titular character, Michael Fassbender is the conductor who keeps the caboose churning. He’s a mix of Spievy and the troubled Daniel Johnston, a man revered and praised as genius because of his offbeat and schizophrenic personality. What’s most impressive is the emotion Fassbender delivers while totally enclosed in the persona Frank’s head exudes. He’s funny, especially when he says what his masked facial expressions are, and is just as equally vulnerable. He’s a figurehead to his band and his followers, and the paper mache casing is his instrument of transmission.
It’s not a spectacular film, but is somewhat groundbreaking in its style, and director Lenny Abrahamson makes the whole thing gel together when it should have fallen apart. This is a wayward, crazy, and remarkably entertaining tale of fame and fortune. Will Jon be the Yoko who tears the band apart at the seams? Will Frank unveil his face to his friends for the first time ever? Who knows, maybe its peculiarity is the reason it stuck with me. Frank is full of fun and moving music and moments, and although it was never clear to me what was trying to be said, like some of my favorite pieces of art, the experience of the unknown brought me bliss.
“I find this inspiring.”
Rating: 4 out of 5