Are some diamonds in the rough so special they can only exist on the fringes? When a rare species enters the ecosystem of the mainstream, do its fragile, sensitive needs break down amongst the polluted elements around it? These are some of the ideas expressed in “Frank,” an off-the-wall and terrific paean to the misfits and freaks of the world, their dreams, visions and togetherness.
In a small, quaint English town, the naïve, ginger-haired dreamer Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) lives a placid, but utterly charmless life. A cubicle drone, he tweets out utterly banal thoughts (“Panini with cheese and ham #livingthedream”), but Jon’s waking life is but waiting moments in between the songs he’s constantly composing in his head. A wannabe musician, Jon has zero outlet for his little songs and quietly yearns for something more. Right on cue, as if the antenna of the world is finally listening, Jon’s universe is transformed when he accidentally meets a strange, dysfunctional psych-rock outsider band (think a Shaggs-y version of the Velvet Underground meets Captain Beefheart and Daniel Johnston), the unpronounceable and cult-like Soronprfbs, who have lost their keyboardist to madness (trying to drown himself on a frigid English beachfront no less). With the band in town for a gig, Jon offhandedly offers his keyboard skills (he can play F, C & A), and much to his surprise, the band’s unhinged and loony manager Doug (Scoot McNairy), gives the young lad an impromptu chance to fill in for the evening. It’s a bit of a disaster, but Jon is invited to join the band anyhow. And when the malfunctioning, ramshackle group retreats to a cabin in the woods in Ireland to record a new album, their adventure begins. Guileless and way out of his depth, the experience is initially transformative to Jon, but eventually begins to take on a much darker edge.
Always jamming with wild, feral abandon, Soronprfbs consists of: Frank (Michael Fassbender), the damaged, Syd Barrett-like musical genius of the group who suffers from an “above board” medical condition that maintains he must wear a papier-mâché visage over his head at all times; Clara (a scene-stealing Maggie Gyllenhaal), the belligerent and humorless synth/theremin/noisemaker; Baraque (Francoise Civil), the French-only speaking bassist/guitarist; and the aloof Nana (multi-instrumentalist Carla Azar of Autolux, collaborator with PJ Harvey, Jack White), the Moe Tucker-like thumping drummer.
Consumed with being as brilliant and inspired as Frank, Jon attempts to channel his own dysfunction, seeing it as the key to unlocking his creative genius. Ostracized and often humiliated by the band who have little respect for him—especially by the anti-mainstream Clara, who treats him with suspicious disgust—Jon finds the trauma to fuel his creativity. And while Soronprfbs, are happy to hang out on the fringes, Jon has bigger dreams for the band, documenting their album making process on Twitter and YouTube to the degree that a following emerges and a spotlight at the SXSW Music Festival is secured. But as their pilgrimage to American begins, Jon’s dream for fame, success and the spotlight, begins to clash with the rest of these eccentric musicians and especially Clara (often with hysterically funny results). Perhaps one of the most satisfying character arcs in recent memory is Jon coming to the self-realization that he isn’t special, and in fact, without spoiling too much, a total hindrance to this band.
Like a mutated “Inside Lleywn Davis,” failure isn’t so much Jon or Soronprfbs problem, as much as it is their clashing visions of what makes the world beautiful. Ultimately, Jon is a charlatan, but he does make some counter-intuitively heroic moves to that end. If you’ve been in bands, toured the world or even spent five minutes in a basement with friends making music, “Frank” vividly captures the complex, often tense and straining push-and-pull dynamics of musical collaboration between four or more people.
And the film also touches upon issues of mental illness, with Doug and Frank having met in a mental institution, and some Asperger’s-like glitches clearly behind Frank’s odd programming. But attempting to figure out exactly what’s wrong with Fassbender’s character is largely missing the point of a movie that celebrates peculiarity. Comedy is the MVP in “Frank,” coming in so many laugh-out-loud little flavors and shades, delivering moments of hilarious cruel mean-spiritedness, with a mischievous sparkle and a deliciously devilish little glint.
Unlike anything you’ve seen in recent memory, this rare bird (written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan) is certainly inimitable, but a grounding touchstone might be the energy and spirit of Richard Ayoade’s “Submarine,” but minus the stylistic visual flourishes. Directed by celebrated Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson ("Adam & Paul" and the tonally 180, "What Richard Did"), “Frank” might be unconventional, but the director largely keeps its style straight, letting the performances, musical or otherwise, shine. And where the filmmaking perhaps works best is in the editing, which captures the energy and mania, but also, the perfect deadpan absurdity, of the comedy within.
The music, composed by Stephen Rennicks, instantly places him on the map as one to watch (or listen for, rather), and perhaps most impressive is the fact that every note in the film is actually the actors playing live to the camera. Much like the interpersonal dynamics of the band, Soronprfbs is discordant, chaotic, and noisy, but like the genius of the Velvet Underground, there’s always a sublime tune swaying beneath the madness (the soundtrack will be a must-own for music heads and one particular song at the end beautifully moving and transcendent).
While some will focus on the conceit of Michael Fassbender wearing a papier-mâché head for much of the film, and some of the odder elements of the movie, you'll likely be too caught up in the deeply inventive, playful and idiosyncratic film to give it much thought. And though some pundits may claim that “Frank” may just be too strange for the average moviegoer, those with at least a working sense of modern day music and the struggles of artists should easily relate and empathize. The bizarrely brilliant “Frank” demonstrates that quirkiness need not be a four-letter word in the language of movies. It certainly won’t be for everyone, but this terrific and sublime experience, and strikingly original film, is mandatory watching for the adventurous viewer. [A]