Nonconformism is at the heart of Frank, Lenny Abramson’s portraiture of wayward musical maniacs/geniuses (delete where applicable) whose eccentric status have far eluded them fame and glory. Whereas most rockband movies trip into the predictable slide of rise-and-fall histrionics, Frank is remarkable for keeping it odd, funny and unpredictable at most parts, featuring characters (bar Domhall Gleeson’s Jon) whose consistent refusal to embrace mainstream appeal keeps the film fresh. It’s just damn refreshing to see a band who are weird and loving it, and hellbent in staying as far from the fringes of commercialism, going so far as the wet corners of Ireland in a log cabin to record the kind of experimental, cacophonic music that’ll make your grandmother throw teacups at. The band’s name, The Soronprfbs, is not only an elocution teacher’s nightmare but also a lesson in testing patience, comprising of five oddballs whom you’d never dream of being acquainted with, let alone sharing a cabin for months on end. But this motley crew of misfits make the entire film, and the eponymous papier-mâché-headed character Frank is the lynchpin to Ambramson’s offbeat, often comical, study of leftfield creativity and existential madness.
Which goes without saying that Frank the Film unfortunately chose to anchor the entire narrative on the shoulders of the creatively-challenged, frustrated songwriter/musician Jon, who happens to be the film’s most uninteresting character. Narratively speaking, this choice of perspective lends an air of familiarity and conventional dynamics established in various musical dramedies. The first hour often verges into Richard Curtis territory of self-possessed narration – a legitimate amateur getting whisked into the company of a hot, young band into a strange dreamland where we can pretend Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous doesn’t exist. It’s understandable that Abramson, along with screenwriters Jon Ronson (The Guardian journalist adapting from his own experience) and Peter Straughan, all decided to make the band’s monumental weirdness accessible to the audience through Gleeson’s Jon, whose songwriting capacity borders on the audience-friendly indie-pop craftsmanship (or the lack thereof). Gleeson is fine in the role – it’s just his specific presence in the entire film feels contrived and tacked on. While the entire band crafts an album to deranged perfection, Jon keeps a semi-egoistic social media journal free from the behest of the band, as a twinkly, Sundance-esque music plays on in the background. Nothing else defines self-possessed whimsy better than a twinkly, Sundance-esque music playing in the background.
But when the film is allowed full rein to the mad riches of its concept, Frank is both entertaining and insightful, detailing the gruelling creative process rarely demonstrated in films about artists and their music. The backstage drama is made even more turbulent when Frank, staunchly refusing to remove his mask, behaves like a despot one minute and a man-child the next, and hellraising theremin-player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal making the most of the bitch-from-hell role) unleashes bile and frisson whenever Jon the novice upsets the balance. The middle-section cabin sequence becomes the film’s highlight, and despite the band hitting on a road-trip into Texas’ South by Southwest festival (which should be exciting as fuck), Frank ironically devolves into a somewhat uninvolving quagmire of petty contrivances and lacklustre resolutions. The closer Jon gets to finally selling out, the quicker Frank spirals to a breakdown. Mental disorder has often been related to musical geniuses, and Frank (inspired by British performer Christopher Sievey’s stage persona Frank Sidebottom) is an addition to the gallery of tragic artists whose mental imbalance got the better of them. As soon as Michael Fassbender emerges from that giant head mask, Abramson’s film also gains some unexpected depth. Gone is the posturing ego and that whimsical tone, and we’re left with a socially and mentally impaired man whose capacity to be normal has already left the building before the show even started. All it took was a mask to make him feel alive.