Monday, May 5, 2014

'Frank' (2014) directed by Lenny Abrahamson

So what's the deal with the big fake head? This question fuels Frank, an idiosyncratic muso-comedy that has the balls to take one of the most handsome leading men of our time and confine him to a super freaky looking staring head. This head has burned itself into Britain's cultural conscious; invented by Chris Sievey for his comedy character Frank Sidebottom - a creation that doles out amusement and nightmares in equal amounts.  But Frank is not a biopic of Sievey, it's an askance examination of just why a man would wear a big fake head that underlies a deeper look at the dangers of egotism in art.

Our entry point into the world of Frank is Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a frustrated songwriter living in a coastal town that they forgot to close down.  He walks the dull, grey streets trying frantically to compose lyrics that, y'know really speak to people, yeah?  He's not having much luck, lyrics about women holding bags and children building sandcastles not amounting to anything.  This a man seems built for a life of desaturated corporate misery, this destiny averted by chancing upon a man trying to drown himself.  This man turns out to be the keyboardist for a band called 'Soronprfbs', fronted by the enigmatic, big fake head wearing Frank (Michael Fassbender).

Immediately volunteering himself as a replacement keyboardist he finds himself drawn into the chaotic vortex of the band, which aside from the obvious strangeness of Frank, is entirely composed of weirdos. Prime among them is the surly Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a character that immediately endears with the snarled line "don't touch my fucking theremin!".  With Jon in tow they head to a remote Irish cabin to record an album, followed by a reluctant appearance at SXSW in Austin where everything goes tits up.

Jon is a talentless, annoying dick. But that's kinda the point.
Frank often feels a little too self-consciously quirky, though it's easy to forgive this in a film that has something genuinely important to explain about what makes an artist and a general instinct for expressing yourself.  The two poles of the film are our protagonist Jon, a character who treats music as a short-cut to adoration and Frank, who, with the anonymity granted by a big fake head is a creature without ego.

We repeatedly see Jon wrestling with his own songs, trying frantically to find his voice and write something truly meaningful - and failing utterly.  He envies the mental illnesses, the troubled childhoods and eccentricity of his band-mates - vocally moaning about how his well-adjusted, middle-class childhood has left him devoid of inspiration. What we eventually realise is that all the effort he expounds upon realising his inner artist is pointless. There is no inner beauty within him - Jon is an intrinsically untalented individual with absolutely nothing to say to anyone.

His is a quest for popularity; a success measured in Twitter followers and YouTube hits. He craves a conventional vision of musical success, all couture leather, eyeliner, flirting with pretty A&R girls and rides to gigs in the back of limousines. He expresses himself as a sop to his ego, seeking the adulation of the masses via 'likeable', middle-of-the-road music.  Jon would fit perfectly into a band like Coldplay or Snow Patrol, but when confronted with true passion in the form of Frank and Soronpfrbs he can't help but fuck everything up.

Though all his character flaws are intentional, Jon is the biggest problem with Frank, Domhnall Gleeson's smug, ironic voice-over unpleasantly echoing the execrable About Time.  Fortunately, Michael Fassbender's Frank more than saves the film. He's the model of an artistic soul, able to find create art from thin air, with lyrics about dirty bathroom and damaged carpet springing direct from his soul. His jumbled up word salad lyrics are heartfelt - sung with no self-examination or analysis.  The anonymity provided by his head removes ego from the equation with a stroke, erasing the individual from the music and forcing us to interpret him purely through art. 

So Frank boils down to a stand-off of ideas: Jon's vision of music as a vehicle for his ego and Frank's instinct to create because he needs to.  The rather depressing  (though probably accurate) conclusion to this argument is that if you don't really feel it then you shouldn't bother - that anything consciously created to make yourself look better is hollow and shitty.  In a world of instant ticket to fame talent shows and ephemeral online fame it's a timely idea - a pointed rebuttal to the aphorism "fake it 'til you make it".

This makes Frank, for it's imperfections, a deeply smart film.  It's narratively uneven, and relies a touch too much on the intrinsic humour of the Frank visual.  That said, its heart is definitely in the right place; it's got a great acid-inflected soundtrack, a complex and vanity-free performance from Michael Fassbender, a sweary, spiky, cooler-than-thou Maggie Gyllenhaal and genuinely does follow through on its promise to explain why a man would spend his life inside a big fake head.  In a multiplex lineup of superheroes and drippy romances it stands out a mile: a passion project that, while not an unreserved success, is a brave bit of film-making that deserves an audience.


Frank is on general release 9th May 2014

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