Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Lenny Arbrahamson
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, Francois Civil, Carla Azar, Tess Harper.
This original but decidedly off beat comedy garnered plenty of plaudits following its screening at the Sundance Film Festival earlier in the year, but it is a film that is likely to bemuse as many people as it pleases. This is the film in which the very busy Michael Fassbender, the star of such diverse films as Hunger, the Oscar winning 12 Years A Slave and the big budget special effects driven X-Men: Days Of Future Past, spends most of the time wearing a giant papier mache mask over his head.
Fassbender plays the eponymous Frank, the enigmatic lead singer and creative force behind a band with the almost unpronounceable name of Soronprfbs. Frank is something of a perfectionist when it comes to creating his music which is a strange blend of electronic trance/disco and punk that defies easy categorisation. While the band is on a tour through a sleepy seaside town, their keyboard player tries to drown himself. Luckily Joe (Domhnall Gleeson, from About Time, etc) is on hand to witness this and he offers his services to the band’s decidedly unhinged manager Don (Scoot McNairy, currently appearing in the nihilistic thriller/road movie The Rover).
Joe is something of an aspiring musician and songwriter himself, who draws upon his boring everyday life for inspiration for his bland tunes. He is also a dreamer with big ideas, and a bit of a misfit and loner in town. He is temporarily brought in to replace the keyboard player and thinks that his dreams are about to come true. A disastrous live performance has him wondering what he has let himself in for, especially when the snarky theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal, recently seen in White House Down, etc) seems determined to give him a hard time.
Things get worse for Joe when the band retreat to an idyllic rural cabin where they plan to write and record their next album. But the process stalls, and tensions grow between the dysfunctional members of the band. And Joe comes to question whether he actually has any talent or not. But he regularly uploads reports on the band’s progress to You Tube and Twitter, gaining the band and its enigmatic front man cult status. The attention results in them getting invited to play at the prestigious South By Southwest festival in Texas. This could be the make or break gig for the band.
Frank is loosely based on the true story of Frank Sidebottom, a Manchester musician, that was created by British comedian Chris Sievey. Here the character has been transplanted to America. The screenplay has been penned by Jon Ronson, who draws upon his experiences of briefly playing in Sievey’s band for the film. He has collaborated on the script with Peter Straughan (with whom he co-wrote The Men Who Stare At Goats, etc), and the pair add elements of black humour to the material. The film deals with themes of mental illness, that fine line between creative genius and madness, obsession, the creative process itself, and the cost of following your dreams. But the second half of the film also undergoes a shift in tone and becomes more melancholy.
The director is Lenny Abrahamson, whose previous film was the gritty and uncomfortably dark Irish drama What Richard Did, which screened at MIFF in 2013. He gives the material its bleak humour and dark, uncomfortable moments. Stephen Rennicks’ music, composed especially for the film and played by the actors themselves, has something of the discordant, grungy and anarchic sounds of early punk and 60s garage bands about it.
The film belongs to Fassbender who shows his versatility here in a rather complex role that requires him to convey a range of emotions without ever showing his face. This is a rare foray into, albeit black, comedy for Fassbender, and he brings a playful, childlike quality to his performance. Only in the final scenes do we get to see him without his giant fake head, and he looks a little like Daniel Day Lewis. Gyllenhaal is good as the prickly Clara, even though she is not given a lot to do. And young Gleeson brings an endearing naivety and vulnerability to his performance as the guileless and self-effacing Joe, who reluctantly comes to acknowledge his painful lack of talent and creativity.
Frank is a decidedly offbeat, quirky, inventive and totally original film, unlike anything you’ve seen at the cinema for a long time, but it is certainly not a film for everyone.
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