Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is a wannabe musician who joins an eccentric pop group led by the mysterious, masked musical 'genius', Frank (Michael Fassbender). Jon quickly realises he has a lot to learn if he wants to fit in to the band's avant garde style.
Frank stars Michael Fassbender. More precisely, it stars Michael Fassbender wearing a giant paper mache head. It’s a pretty good head as far as this kind of thing goes (which is a relief in the circumstances). It has a pair of giant blue cartoon eyes set in a large and absurdly round cookie ice cream pink face and non-threatening black hair that, for some reason I can’t fathom, reminded me of Tin Tin. It’s a face you’d want to cuddle and look after if it weren’t, y’know, made of paper mache.
Fassbender plays Frank, the lead singer of an avant-garde rock outfit called Soronprfbs. (Yes, the name can’t be spoken in a way that is recognisable as human speech.) He eats, sleeps and naturally plays with the head on. The band’s music sounds like noise that you could only make with instruments. (Played by the actors and some of it is beautiful.) Frank’s cohorts treat him as a visionary. It doesn’t take long for us to figure out they’re deluded. Frank and the head thing isn’t a joke. He’s in hiding in a way and the head allows him to function and create.
Which brings me back to Fassbender and the conceit of casting him as Frank. There are legions who would, I’d guess, line up to see the actor. But for most of the running time here his ‘instrument’, his face, is hidden. Lucky the guy can do a lot with his arms and legs; the big head on that slender rock and roll physique makes him look like a lost boy (when it could have been merely creepy, or silly, or just plain dumb). Then there’s the voice, which is marvelously expressive and warm and welcoming and almost-but-not-quite holds off the morbid curiosity of the story. (Indeed, the actor’s challenge here is not that unlike voice work in animation.) Still, I never quite lost myself in this movie. I could not surrender to its musical twilight zone, its pop culture satire, its anti-hipster/hipster convictions. I think they needed a fine actor for the part and Fassbender is very good. But instead of wondering about who I would meet once that head came off, I could only think about what Fassbender might look like when it did.
All of which is to say that Frank is a slim movie fat with ideas in need of a bit of muscle work. It originated as a newspaper article and the writing and set-up have a kind of neat, academic approach that never lets the material breathe too deeply. Jon Ronson, famed author of The Men Who Stare at Goats, co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Straughan. The narrative fictionalises Ronson’s experiences playing in Frank Sidebottom's Oh Blimey Big Band. Sidebottom was actually the alter ego of The Freshies’ Chris Sievey, who, like the movie’s Frank, wore a big head (but not all the time).
Director Lenny Abrahamson, one of Ireland’s most prominent helmers – he did the excellent What Richard Did – gives the performances an improvisational air and the movie a quasi doco feel and a curious tone co-mingling goofy deadpan with melancholy. But most of the scenes don’t rise above the level of the slick efficiency typical of good sketch work.
The scenario – a riff on the ‘innocent abroad’ story – doesn’t help. The film’s lead is actually Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a parka clad nerd who is failing desperately at life. (They may as well have given him a sign that says ‘rock and roll road kill’.) Jon badly wants success as a pop star. Abrahamson and co. quickly establish that Jon is a) a no talent, b) a desperate who hangs on the street for inspiration in order to spawn lyrics of the Brit pop ‘everyday life’ school, and c) an opportunist who doesn’t understand that invention comes before ambition.
By chance Jon gets a gig playing keyboard with Frank’s outfit. He’s hired by Don (Scoot McNairy), the band’s sad-sack manager; it’s one of the films better jokes: “Can you play C, F and G?” Predictably, the rest of the band – drummer Nana (Carla Azar), bassist Baraque (Francois Civil) and theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) – hate Jon on sight, immune to his ginger-haired affability. Unaccountably, Frank likes him. (Well, he has to since without this relationship there’s no movie.) Jon becomes a meat puppet/audience surrogate, his dialogue largely consisting of lines designed to keep the action (such as it is) moving: Why the head? What’s going on? What’s wrong with Frank? Don’t you want to be popular?
It turns out that Soronprfbs have committed to recording an album in an isolated house in Ireland. It takes a year, in which time Jon blogs and twitters away, creating enough buzz (argh!) to stimulate a slot at SXSW. The ensuring tour is a Spinal Tap moment where all implodes…
The film has subplots, the best of which tease out the sneaky corners hiding inside these character types. I particularly liked Gyllenhaal’s nasty possessiveness over Frank’s right to be whoever and whatever he wants. Since she frames her guardianship as a form of psyche therapy for this sad and troubled man, it’s genuinely poignant as opposed to mawkish.
Still, there’s something a little mean in all of this. The film’s desire to reduce its cultural and artistic conflicts to simple one-on-one propositions – artistic purity vs. pop acceptance, personal expression vs. cool professionalism, isolationism vs. accessibility – gives the film a know-it-all air of superiority, likes it’s the worst kind of rock snob journalism. That’s a shame, and I don’t think Abrahamson grooves on what passes here for satire. Frank is at its best – sweet, kind, open – when we get a chance to see and feel what goes on inside that big, friendly head.