A provincial young man dreams of writing songs. He is not very good at it. A chance encounter with a touring American band with an unpronounceable name leads to his stepping in for their sectioned keyboard player, travelling to Ireland to spend a year of musical experiments and recording and, through slightly underhand methods, getting the band booked at a big-time US festival. But at what cost? Is he a weasely manipulator, or just blindly self-serving? Is art compatible with commerce? Is genius born from mental distress? Is it in fact essentially unfathomable? And why does the band’s leader/singer/guru Frank never take off that large cartoon head?
These are questions asked by Frank, and in fact it rather spoils things to outline too clearly the how and why of their asking. Director Abrahamson handles the issues with a lightness of touch and a fair amount of humour, however, whilst maintaining the serious undercurrent they deserve. One of the most interesting and quietly unusual things about the film is that our hero, the young man Jon (Harry Potter‘s Domhnall Gleeson, now an uncanny Cate Blanchett doppelgänger) is in fact a bit of a stupid shit – “a mediocre child” as he’s labeled near the end – on a fundamental level unable to understand or appreciate what the band is seeking, the pushing of the corners that Frank encourages. but gaining after a while the self-awareness to know that he could never attain to anything like their artistic achievements. Thus, the next best thing is to ride, and steer, the coattails.
Gleason nicely conveys the gradual transformation from rabbit-in-the-headlights to quasi-Svengali, and does keep us guessing as to how far the damage of his manipulation is inadvertent – his talent may not be for music, but like some idiot-savant, he inexorably gets where he wants to go with blithe disregard for those around him.
The promotional materials are not reticent about which fairly-famous actor is beneath Frank’s mask, although in some ways this too is not worth spoiling, if you happen not to have heard by now. The mystery of Frank is persuasive, as are the claims by all around him that he is a genius. From beneath that unmoving, slightly disturbing, and oddly sad-looking head come words of both wisdom and childlike enthusiasm (and, amusingly, helpful reports of his facial expressions), and an apparent ability to spin a decent song out of even a stray thread of upholstery. And, most importantly, this is really a pretty good band, of satisfyingly hard-to-pin-down genre, with scowling Maggie Gyllenhaal on theremin and electronics, Jack White’s current drummer Carla Azar, and sullen Frenchie François Civil on guitar, bass, and Blixa Bargeld hair.
That they wind up doing über-slowcore covers of unlikely Americana folk tunes in a dive bar is played initially for laughs, but it turns out they do it really well, and the final low-key reunion confirms what we’ve suspected for a while, that this is quite a special group of people, with deep-running mutual sympathy and understanding, whose musical explorations are sincere and worth attending to, and that the likes of Jon have no place amongst them.
Internationally it will be apparent to only a few, but Frank’s face is instantly recognisable as that of Frank Sidebottom, creation of eccentric musician and comedian Chris Sievey. Sidebottom was a slightly unnerving man-child character whose cult status in the late ’80s/early ’90s might see him turn up equally on Saturday morning kids’ TV or playing a side stage at Glastonbury. Sievey was from Manchester (very much so), and by no means the experimental soundscape musician of the film. I really do not know how much he is present here bar the name and the head, but co-writer Jon Ronson was a member of his band, publishing a memoir of his US tour with them (also admitting to drawing from the lives and myths of Daniel Johnston and Captain Beefheart). Sievey gave his blessing to the project before his untimely death in 2010, and the tone appears to be one of honouring his memory rather than plundering the persona. In any case, the film-makers have conjured a funny, thoughtful, and ultimately touching story, told in part through nicely-judged use of onscreen tweets and voiceover blog posts by an unusually yet unobtrusively flawed protagonist, with just the right amount of mystery and lack of romanticism surrounding Frank’s mental state and character in general to make the finale genuinely moving.
Festival’s Film Page: ‘Frank’
(Ireland, 2014, 94 mins, DCP)