If you have not seen Frank, stop at the end of this paragraph and go see it. Do not check IMDB, watch a trailer, or read any reviews or publicity materials for the film, just go see it. The rest of this article will deal with a spoiler that is not really a spoiler, because just about all promotional materials for the film make it common knowledge. But, Frank is the kind of movie where the surprise reveal of the identity of the title character is a key aspect of the effectiveness of the film. So do not pass go, do not collect $200, just go watch Frank. We’ll be right here.
You’re back? Good. Okay, so you know that Frank is Michael Fassbender.
Part of the problem with knowing that Frank is Michael Fassbender is that once you know it’s him, it’s obvious. You can’t unsee it.
From the business point of view, it’s a no-brainer. If you’ve got Michael Fassbender in your movie, especially a quirky little indie film like Frank, you want to shout it from the mountaintops. From an artistic standpoint, however, it’s a different story. Like Luke’s father and Citizen Kane’s sled, Frank’s identity should be kept under lock and key until the last second so that audiences can appreciate the true brilliance of the performance.
Actors basically have two things that they are selling to their audience – their appearance and their talent. Since the title character spends most of Frank in a huge spherical head, Fassbender’s appearance is taken away from him. To further complicate things, the head also eliminates his ability to use facial expressions to convey his emotions. So, for the majority of a film that he basically carries on his shoulders, Fassbender must use his vocal inflections and his body language to get his character’s point across. In one scene he starts to describe his facial expressions to the other characters, saying things like “welcoming smile” or “inquisitive look,” but his aggravated bandmate Clara (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) forces him to stop, so Fassbender is apparently on his own. And he nails it.
Since you’ve seen the movie (right?), you know that Frank is eventually unmasked. The reveal is much less shocking to an audience who is aware of the identity of the actor inside the head. There is one scene where Frank’s keyboardist, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), tries to track down Frank after the mysterious artist loses his head. Jon is met by a couple of red herrings, providing some “is-that-him?” moments that could be effective, but the scenes are spoiled by the fact that everyone knows that Fassbender is Frank. Even before he is unmasked, the audience knows what he looks like under the head. Kinda, because it’s not the sparkly-toothed, handsome Fassbender of Inglourious Basterds under the head.
Even without the head, Fassbender has his work cut out for him; Frank is a mentally challenged musical savant who uses his stage persona as a way to interact with other people on a social level. Playing that type of role is rough – just ask Dustin Hoffman, who almost gave up on the role of Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man, only to go on to win an Oscar. Fassbender holds his own, even as the unmasked Frank. Fassbender essentially takes on two roles – an eccentric artist and an introverted man-child. He’s charismatic enough to handle Frank-with-head, and talented enough to pull off Frank-without. Between the two, he gives the performance of a career.
An interesting side note to Fassbender’s portrayal of Frank should be pointed out. Believe it or not, Frank is based on a true story. The real Frank is Frank Sidebottom, the alter-ego of British performance artist and musician Chris Sievey. The screenplay for Frank was written by Jon Ronson, a musician who was asked to join Frank Sidebottom’s band for the same reason Jon was invited into Frank’s band in the film – he knew a few chords. Sievey had a fairly successful musical career as a solo artist and a member of The Freshies before he created the Frank Sidebottom persona, so there was never much secrecy as to who was inside the real Frank Sidebottom’s head. Therefore, Frank Sidebottom was more of a comedy sketch than an enigmatic performer. Similarly, the knowledge that Michael Fassbender is inside the Frank head takes a bit of the mystery out of the character.
It may be too late for this advice now, since you’ve already read this far (after seeing the movie, right? Right??), but if you recommend Frank to anyone, do them a favor. Insist that they go in cold. No trailer, no reviews, just go. They’ll appreciate the masterful performance, and you’ll have turned them on to a cool movie that they’ll hopefully love.
In the meantime, enjoy some Frank Sidebottom.