Making a splash at 2014’s Sundance Film Festival was this quirky little indie dramedy delight, Frank. Domhnall Gleeson stars as audience surrogate Jon Burroughs, who finds himself caught up in the wild and inscrutable world of indie experimental band Soronprfbs. Now a new hire on keyboards, Jon finds himself antagonized by unbalanced Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and fascinated by enigmatic lead singer Frank (Michael Fassbender), who never takes off his papier-mâché head. And so Jon begins to constantly wonder “what goes on inside that head inside that head”.
Frank engages its central theme with a laser focus. Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan’s script interrogates our cultural narrative/myth of the musical genius fueled by things like an early trauma or an abusive upbringing. Title character Frank (whose fake head is inspired by real-life comedian Chris Sievey’s Frank Sidebottom persona) fits a stereotype that protagonist Jon actually finds himself jealous of. Jon, an amateur songwriter himself, voices a half-joking wish that he could have had a troubled childhood to unlock the key of musical inspiration. The film plays with this familiar idea brilliantly, and the realization of the truth about Frank is poignant and tragic.
But what I haven’t touched on so far is the humor, which can hit both subtle and side-splitting. The film had me laughing within two minutes, and though I can’t call the film a laugh riot, it balances its humor with its pathos very well, even if it leans very hard into the latter in what you might call a “downer ending”. It is a downer, but absolutely necessary to the story being told here.
The other major concern of the story is a broader satire of indie rock, as Frank is torn in two directions by two bandmates. Protagonist Jon represents the route to mainstream popularity, with his understanding of pop hooks and promotion. Frank’s muse Clara represents the purity of independent music making, the credibility of a hipster’s world of unpronounceable band names and pretentious artistry that even the artist can’t interpret. But both Jon and Clara describe their music as “happy”. The journey of the band’s music tracks throughout the film; when, under Jon’s encouragement, Frank plays for the band “his most likable song ever”, the result is one that amuses me to no end. Your mileage may vary, but I think it’s hilarious.
The character Frank is a great creation, infused with an undeniable screen presence even without the use of Fassbender’s face. Maggie Gyllenhaal also excels as the unpleasant Clara, giving her all to a role she admitted she didn’t “understand” at first. Post-Harry Potter, Gleeson proves he can carry a film, although he doesn’t have much of a load to bear given the fact that director Lenny Abrahamson and editor Nathan Nugent make each shot and each scene carry its weight in furthering the story.
Frank is not for every taste, but it knows exactly what it wants to do, and carries its themes through to their logical conclusions with great insight, humor and drama. The cast is uniformly solid, with the three central standouts sealing the deal of a well-made and substantial mix of amusement and aching drama. 8/10.