There’s a point towards the end of Frank where Jon, the fame-chasing albeit talentless bandmate of the excellent new film’s titular character, asks Frank’s parents, “What happened to him? Something must have happened to him to make him like that.” What he’s referring to is the thing that everyone who knows anything about this movie knows: Frank, played by Michael Fassbender, wears a creepy (and sometimes creepily emotive) paper maché head at all times. Even in the shower, which we see in one of the film’s most absurd flashes. Frank’s father replies, “Nothing happened to him. He’s got a mental illness.”
Jon’s response, which I imagine would be surprisingly common among music fans, shows that he still doesn’t get it. “The torment he went through to make the great music…” he begins.
“The torment didn’t make the music,” Frank’s mother counters, “he was always musical. If anything, it slowed him down.”
In that very moment, Frank goes from a low-key comedy about the truly bizarre state of hype in the music industry amidst the struggle to make Real Shit, to a film about being a high-functioning sufferer of mental illness.
Frank moves like it’s in it for the long, strange trip rather than the destination, so it’s a wonder the unobtrusive, outsider-on-purpose film can discuss these huge topics without beating the point to a pulp. I find this is where both music biopics and documentaries fail — when trying to point out all that can go wrong when true artistes step into the corrupt business of pandering to an audience and selling their work. Then again, many fictional depictions of mental illness are also far less subtle than what Frank offers up. Nuance and absurdism don’t often go hand in hand, but Frank proves that these qualities are not mutually exclusive.
Despite a similar paper maché stunt pulled by Arcade Fire last year, Frank’s head is not a schtick, though it’s come to be viewed that way once his band gains an audience online and at South By Southwest. The mask makes him a character (instead of a person) almost by default, when in reality Frank is someone who is merely working through what ails him. But as co-writer Jon Ronson discussed with Flavorwire, Fassbender’s Frank is inspired by a real person, whose story has been shifted to fit a modern narrative about social media and buzz-building in the music world.
From the late 1970s and onward, British pop singer and comedian Frank Sidebottom (née Chris Sievey) wore a head not unlike the one seen here, all while leading the band The Freshies, singing solo catchy numbers like “Panic on the Streets of Timperley” and “Christmas Is Really Fantastic,” and working as a U.K. TV and radio presenter. Ronson played in Sidebottom’s Oh Blimey Big Band in his youth, and thus is depicted here in a so-called “grotesque” form by Domhnall Gleeson’s Jon.
At first, Gleeson’s rock wannabe character is thrust into Frank’s world, though later on it’s Jon leading the charge. When one of Frank’s bandmates attempts suicide, manager Don brings in Jon in a moment of desperation before the gig. For whatever reason, Frank likes Jon’s nervous excitement and invites him to work with the band in what becomes the Chinese Democracy of cabin-in-the-woods recording sessions. The film isn’t exactly explicit about how long the perfectionist musicians spend in Ireland preparing to record their album and never really getting around to it, but the bulk of Frank takes place in this country setting. It’s long enough for Clara, the icy theremin player portrayed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, to declare war on Jon, get desperate enough to have sex with him, then go back to despising him. More importantly, it’s long enough for Jon to chronicle the sessions online through videos, tweets, and blog posts, novelty promotional efforts that ultimately garner a gig at SXSW.
What happens from there is a master class in bands falling apart under the pressures of the modern music industry. The fights that transpire make the arguments of Almost Famous seem like child’s play. When Jon reads on Vice’s music blog, Noisey, that indie pop is in at SXSW, he suggests the band shifts its sound towards commerciality and simplicity. Gripped by the fear of not finding an audience, Frank writes an erratic synth track about dancing all night — a monstrosity he calls the most likeable song of his career. Gyllenhaal’s response: “I’m not playing the fucking ukelele.” She also stabs Jon in the leg, a move he milks towards modest viral fame (700,000 YouTube views). You start to wonder: are these the soul-crushing lengths it takes to be a known band in our digital age? And if so, how are weirdos supposed to pull that off?
I won’t spoil the rest, but what transpires is sad and upsetting, until suddenly it’s not again. The way Frank puts its pieces back together, beautifully, has to do with troubled eccentrics embracing each others’ differences — something they forgot when Jon became the de facto band leader. Sort of a fitting ending for an outsider comedy: the promise of fame be damned, don’t trust the normals.