How much you enjoy the new movie FRANK will depend on how you feel about Indie movies, Indie music, ironic humour and stories about emotionally immature man-boys. Domhnall Gleeson plays Jon, a young Englishman with a dead-end job who lives with his parents. His mind is frequently stuck in a fervent internal monolog because his outer life is desperate and friendless. The music he writes and plays in his room is his only means of self-expression. The music scene is his connection to the world–the single living artery in a bloodless existence. Which is why he keeps an eye out for any new band passing through the small, unnamed seaside town where he lives.
When the unpronounceable band, Soronprfbs, appears, he is excited. They seem to have an impressively underground reputation. They are the very definition of an act whose music you never heard of. Their electronically infused art-rock is deeply self-indulgent, but what sets them apart from any similar outfit is their lead singer Frank. Over his street clothes, he wears a large, almost spherical, fibreglass head with cartoony features sculpted into it. Before his voice hits the mic, it is audible via a speaker built into the cranial shell. Frank sings and speaks to the world through the head. He wears the alienating contraption 24/7. No one has ever seen his real face.
Through a series of coincidences, Jon is asked to replace the band’s keyboardist. Immediately, he finds himself plunged into the dark emotional funk that permeates this tense collection of misfit players. None of them appear to have functioning people skills. They are a gang of self-involved dreamers lead by a man who is possibly living his life as performance art. Jon has trouble bonding with these damaged folk. Whether this is his lack or theirs is difficult to say.
Jon and the band travel to Ireland (Wicklow) to record an album in a ramshackle facility that consists of a run-down caravan, office and Bavarian-style chalets. He has no clear idea of what he should do, so he begins taking video footage of rehearsals and tweeting about their progress. YouTube and Twitter become an outlet for his sense of bewilderment. It’s also an opportunity to present some good gags about social media. We are privy to Jon tweets and the replies from Soronprfbs fans, haters and trolls.
The process of recording is exhausting thanks to Frank’s perfectionism. As Jon floats through his new circumstances, you sense he is looking for transformation. He has never been cool or valued in any way. He is seeking a kind of epiphany. Frank with his enigmatic world-view, not to mention his frozen, continually surprised expression, seems like a potential guru or mentor. He’s a man with a big empty head, who won’t judge others.
The first half of FRANK is littered with the stereotypes of life on the road. The second–stronger–half offers some answers to the enigma of a lead singer hidden in plain sight. As we learn more of Frank, the deadpan comedy recedes and we are given greater insight into the fragile personalities of the band members. Michael Fassbender is excellent in the title role. He let it be known he wanted the part and he does great things with it, despite having his voice and eyes obscured. Scoot McNairy (currently in David Michod’s Australian film THE ROVER) also makes a strong impression as the manager Don. Maggie Gyllenhaal is Clara, the aggressive theremin player who thinks she is the only one who truly understands Frank. Domhnall Gleeson does a solid job with the problematic lead role. His is the most relatable character and provides us with our way into the insular world of Soronprfbs, but Jon is struggling with his own demons. He is half-conscious at best and therefore something of an unreliable narrator.
Director Lenny Abrahamson has made his biggest film to date with this UK-Irish co-production. The film’s co-writers, playwright Peter Straughn and journalist Jon Ronson wrote their screenplay based on Ronson’s own experiences playing in a band led by a man in a papier-mâché head. In the 1980’s, the late Chris Sievey created the persona of Frank Sidebottom, an aspiring pop singer from Timperly, Manchester. Sievey’s Frank was comedic, whereas the movie’s Frank is a serious musician who hails from Kansas. The design of the movie head is very similar to the one Sievey wore. Ronson and Straughn have given their Frank some of the qualities of outsider musicians like Captain Beefheart and Daniel Johnston. In this way, their screenplay is something of a love letter to outsider music. Soronprfbs aren’t looking for mainstream success and Jon doesn’t understand why not.
FRANK is a slow starter and a little hard to crack into at first, however it has an entertainingly dry wit and is a poignant look at the sort of world that sensitive people build to protect themselves. The movie is currently playing in Australia in limited release. It runs for 95 minutes. I give it a rating of 6/10.