By Simon Miraudo
June 5, 2014
Michael Fassbender covers up in Frank, though you could say that of any film he’s done in the years since Shame. The pants stay on, and now, a papier-mâché head has been added to the mix, obscuring the Irish actor’s handsome visage for the majority of the movie. Though hiding the face of your most famous star may not sound like the wisest move, it works wonders in Lenny Abrahamson’s lovely little feature. As the childlike, emotionally-stunted title character – based, very loosely, upon cult music legend Frank Sidebottom – Fassbender gets to be sweeter and more playful than ever before, something his chiselled, greyhound-esque appearance wouldn’t normally allow.
Co-written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan, Frank is inspired by Ronson’s real-life experience as Sidebottom’s one-time keyboardist. Domhnall Gleeson has the Ronson role, just called Jon here; an office drone and terrible songwriter who serendipitously fills in on the keys for Frank’s band after yet another member succumbs to a nervous breakdown. His brief audition consists solely of the question, “Can you play C, G and F?” Having barely met that requirement, Jon is invited to join Frank’s eclectic collective in an isolated cabin and help craft their debut album. The recording process is exhaustive, and often involves no recording at all but much frolicking in the wilderness. When the microphones are turned on, Frank insists on collecting impossible noises, like the kind toothbrush bristles might make. It’s enough to drive a reasonable person batty, so it’s a good thing then that the troupe is comprised of suicidal misfits, sociopaths, and some French people. That doesn’t even include the bandleader who showers with a giant fake head.
The songs (well, the ones that eventually emerge from the nightmarish scream-scapes of their jam sessions, anyway) are ear-wormy ditties, and we have musician Stephen Rennicks to thank for them. Fassbender’s voice may not be world-class, but the way he bellows with his off-kilter American accent suggests a man with a secret. Scoot McNairy and Maggie Gyllenhaal add flavour as two of Frank’s devoted collaborators, the latter, in particular, doing her spiciest, spunkiest work in an age. Gleeson is an appealing leading man too. Still, everyone here is in service of Fassbender and his comic powerhouse of a performance.
With a giant bulbous head on his shoulders, wide-eyed stare and dead smile painted on, Fassbender gets to flail his lanky body about underneath and convince us for 95 minutes he’s a different person entirely. These are not skills he got to show off in 12 Years a Slave. Or Hunger. Or The Counselor. Or Jane Eyre. Or Fish Tank. Or A Dangerous Method. Or what, you want me to keep listing all the desperately dark pictures he’s made before? Frank is a departure, and a successful one at that.
Abrahamson, coming off his devastating portrait of teenage regret, What Richard Did, is also changing things up quite significantly with Frank. Straddling the line between cutesy, quirky, and stunningly grim, it becomes at once a perceptive depiction of the frustrating, maddening creative process, and then, an incisive comment on outsider art, the way hipsters ironically embrace it, the way hacks try to take advantage of it, and how even the possible widespread acceptance of it fails to solve the ailments of those doing the creative suffering. In his companion book Frank, Ronson cites the tragic cases of Daniel Johnston and The Shaggs as muses for this half-invented tale. Look them up to glimpse how mental illness is often masked (not to mention both abated and exacerbated) by the pursuit of musical perfection.
When Frank’s band is offered a gig at South by Southwest, you’d think we’d be heading towards a triumphant finale in which the eternal outsiders are invited to the hallowed inner sanctum, wherein they’ll find thousands of like-minded loners. This is not the direction Frank ultimately takes, with its final act venturing into especially sad territory. Ronson’s journalistic exploits often track the failed journeys of the deluded, over-ambitious and exploited. He has adapted his wry comic style and pathos to screenwriting remarkably well. Similar to its subjects, this is a movie unlike most. Frank is odd, funny, warm, weird, and perfect just the way it is.
Frank plays the Sydney Film Festival June 7 and 10, 2014. It arrives in Australian cinemas June 19.