Frank represents a second and more successful attempt at adapting and fictionalising one of journalist Jon Ronson’s works to cinema, following 2008’s patchy The Men Who Stare at Goats (he’s also a screenwriter here). Rather than being based on an investigative piece, Frank draws from a memoir of when Ronson played keyboards for Frank Sidebottom, an eccentric comedian who, like the film’s title character, always wore a large fake head.
Domhnall Gleeson plays Jon, the Ronson stand-in, an office drone and aspiring songwriter living with his parents in a coastal English town. Gleeson continues his relatable everyman charm from About Time and captures humorously his attempts to write music inspired by whatever he’s seeing that day, only to come up with nothing or realise they’re existing songs.
By chance he runs into a massively pretentious avant-garde art rock outfit called “Soronprfbs” and, due to the hospitalisation of their current player, winds up filling in on keyboards for a disastrous initial gig. Despite this, he’s subsequently invited to go to Ireland with them where they intend to record an album in a rural getaway.
It’s here where a good chunk of the film takes place, and we first get a chance to know the band’s enigmatic leader, Frank (Michael Fassbender). The other band members, including the young Jon all seem drawn to him. He does convey a mysterious appeal, even though he rarely speaks and yes, wears a giant fake head. The whole time in fact, even as Jon later discovers, when showering.
Rounding out the band are Maggie Gyllenhaal as an abrasive theramin player, who’s inexplicable hatred of Jon is often results in more blatant comic moments, Scoot McNairy as the manager, and a less talkative rhythm section (Carla Azar and François Civil).
Frank finds inspiration in almost everything, and appears to spend more time recording random sounds than composing tunes, but he want the music to be perfect before committing it to the album. Naturally, this winds up taking much longer than expected, and the creative process begins to take a toll on some of the band members, Jon included. Frank remains a fascinating character throughout this, we learn snippets of information about him via conversations Jon has with others or him directly, but we can never be sure if any of it is true.
Fassbender has the more obviously challenging role, having to perform with his entire face covered. He gets a lot out of it, often relying simply on his movements accompanying the music. He’s both amusing and confounding by turn, but never off-putting or creepy in the way a fully masked character could be. I do think the weirdness of his work has drawn attention away from the film’s best performance though; which is McNairy’s manager Don. Don is the only one who seems willing to talk to Jon, but beneath his initially straight-to-the-point confident exterior lies a troubled past as a mental patient that he continues to struggle with.
As for the actual music, we don’t hear a great deal of it really; Frank isn’t much of a musical. It’s commendably played by the actual actors giving it a much-needed authenticity but it’s all wilfully inaccessible. The band’s support players might revere Frank as a musical genius but the film allows you to make up your own mind. It does find a few amusing comments to make on current indie music and asks not just whether this band could be popular, but whether they should be?
One aspect of the film that definitively separates it from its factual inspiration, which took place in the eighties, is how thoroughly modern it is in its utilisation of technology, in particular; social media. Jon is an avid user of various sites, and his posts appear in the form of voice over, tweets on screen, (and replies to them), YouTube videos, and more. These innovative techniques employed by director Lenny Abrahamson actually play a key part in the plot too, and there are subtler touches to their use, such as how the number of twitter followers Jon has (which accompany each visible tweet) reflect the relative internet fame Soronprfbs are reaching.
I’d hesitate to call Frank a comedy, but it gets in a number of offbeat laughs, often from Fassbender’s body language but also the hilarious moment when he reveals his ‘most likeable song’. There is unfortunately one central gag that’s lifted directly from The Big Lebowski, a film Frank’s target audience will likely all be familiar with.
The film also presents some problems with plausibility; how does Frank make international border crossings (which he does twice) without removing his head? The whole film is from Jon’s perspective so do the other band members just keep Jon away when he does? However it’s suggested that no-one has seen him without the head, and they all travel in one van.
Frank takes a more serious turn in its third act, abandoning the standard path it appeared to be heading down and revealing a greater aspiration to truly explore how a character like Frank would come into being. This shift in focus might be initially disappointing to some, but in the end proves Frank to be a more affecting film, and not in the way I’d expected.