Frank is, by far, one of the strangest films I have ever seen, if not the strangest I’ve seen this year.
Some of it will seem familiar: it looks at the music industry, but also whether mental illnesses can or cannot be the inspiration for what some would call creative genius. It’s a movie about the struggles of finding your creative spark.
In essence, the movie plays out like an odd episode of “Behind the Music.” The band in question, though, has no real interest in fame or success- just creating the music for the love of the craft. This is seen through the eyes of the outsider who has a drive for fame, but lacks any sort of creativity. Should be a fun mix.
The film begins on the beach. We follow Jon Burroughs, played by Domhnall Gleeson, as he sings about what he sees, whether it’s children building sandcastles or women who walk past him. He’s been struggling with his lack of a musical career, but at home, inspiration strikes as he comes up with the name of a new song: Suburbia. How original. Oh, and by the by, Jon is an avid Twitter user, as he tells anyone who will listen that he’s working hard and eating panini. Living the dream!
Later he spots a man in the water. Also watching this is Don, played by Scoot McNairy. According to Don, the man in the water trying to kill himself is the keyboardist of a band Don manages. Jon mentions that he plays, and since he can play C, F and G, Don allows him to come by and practice later that night.
That evening, Don arrives for practice and we’re introduced to the other members of the band called Soronprfbs (don’t try to pronounce that): Baraque, played by Francois Civil, Nana, played by Carla Azar, both of whom speak French, and theremin player Clara, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal.
However, your focus will immediately go to the man in the giant, papier-mâché head. This is Frank, and although you can’t see his face, that is indeed Michael Fassbender underneath that huge head. The band’s flavor of music is…different, to say the least. However, the practice session doesn’t go well when the equipment decides to short-circuit. Don’t you hate when that happens?
The next day, Jon gets a call at work from Don, who tells them that the band needs a new keyboard player for a major upcoming gig in Warrington. Jon, eager to jumpstart a music career, is happy to commit for what he sees as nothing more than a weekend commitment.
When Jon meets up with Don before the group takes off, we learn a bit more about Frank. He never takes the head off. Ever. Even to eat or drink, the head is always on. Odd as it sounds, Frank is still a good singer regardless, so Jon needs to just go along with this. What is Don’s personality quirk? Well, he was labeled severely mentally ill because he used to fuck mannequins. And this is the band manager.
We arrive at a remote cabin in the middle of nowhere and Jon learns that he’s in for a very long musical journey. He’s not pleased since he told his job he would be back on Monday, but the band will remain there until the album is recorded. Frank has them taking part in tasks like recording sound effects for field work. Jon tries to mingle with the band, but Baraque, Nana and especially Clara, don’t like him at all.
Unbeknownst to the rest of the group, Jon decides to blog his experiences to the world. He finds Frank to be a friendly person and would like to know what goes on inside that giant head of his. At times, work can be overwhelming, but Frank pushes everyone in the band to their farthest corner so they can excel.
When Clara urges Jon to play something after he says one day that he writes his own music, he freezes on the spot and can’t come up with anything creative. He just hasn’t found his core yet when it comes to song-writing. Clara, not willing to wait that long, wants Jon gone. Oh, and she’d like to punch him in the face. Never get on Maggie Gyllenhaal’s bad side.
As practice continues, a family arrives at the cabin one day…the family that actually lives in the cabin. Frank speaks with the family in private while the others try to work out a way to remain there to finish their work. Frank somehow manages to convince the family to head off, with the wife having found new truth in her soul. Jon, meanwhile, decides to keep the operation going by funding it with his nest egg. How very kind of him. And very stupid.
Eleven months pass and Frank still needs perfection in order to begin the actual recording. Jon’s nest egg has been depleted and he’s still not closer to finding out what Frank looks like under that damn head. However, Jon has managed to compose something that Frank finds amazing. After some tweaking, in that the band ends up not using Jon’s compositions at all, Frank decides that it’s finally time to begin recording.
Like 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis, Frank focuses on a musician whose creativity may not be accepted by society yet or is seen as outside of the mainstream music world. The quirky tone remains constant throughout most of the film as we follow this odd bunch of musicians, though it shifts by the time we reach South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. The film goes to some dark places as we dig deeper into Frank’s head and find out what makes him the way he is. From the beginning, the film could just be mistaken for another story about an up and coming musician trying to attain fame, but once Frank appears on-screen, we’re in for an interesting trip.
And that’s true when it comes to the recording process. Sure, Frank’s methods may seem odd, but that’s putting things in our normalized perspective. What we call strange seems absolutely normal to the band. They aren’t traditional, but this is how Frank believes they find their spark, as he finds inspiration in everything to the point that he gives the band members nicknames. Consider, it took over 11 months just to prepare to record the album. This may seem extravagant, but Frank strives for perfection.
And similar to Begin Again, Frank pits fame against creativity in music. Jon represents the idealistic music agent who sees inspiration in someone’s work and wants to capitalize on that. He hones in on the group’s potential while pulling strings behind the scene to give the group a social media following. While Frank himself may be excited by the idea of so many YouTube viewers watching the group’s videos, the film points out, as we already know, that YouTube views aren’t that monumental. Jon wants quick fame, but I see the group as more tortured artists that strive to create great work. They aren’t interested in becoming world famous- they’d rather work on their craft for as long as it takes. The movie asks whether we would prefer to maintain that happiness or abandon it just for a few seconds of fame.
Let’s get into Frank himself. We never get too much into his head from his perspective, as most of what we’re told comes from other characters. We know he wants to help people reach the farthest corners of their potential. However, it’s said a few times that Frank spent some time in a hospital. Yet, those deep, psychological issues don’t affect his passion for music.
It’s amazing how good of a job Fassbender does with the role despite his face being covered for most of the movie. There’s a lot of physical work that comes with his performance and the subtle shifts in his tone of voice make for a well-acted role. He can be jolly and happy when performing, but at times, he’ll enter a deep depression from which no amount of stardom can rescue him. Sure, Frank likes the idea of a following, but fame can be overwhelming at times. When you get the fortune and popularity you so want, sometimes you realize you were better off without it. I think that’s who Frank would prefer to be.
Jon himself is not a bad guy, but he’s in over his head. Gleeson does a good job playing Jon as an aspiring artist with his head in the clouds. He’s not that good of a musician, if he can even be called that. His lyrics are uninspired and he latches onto the band like it’s his calling in life. He meddles with a dynamic that did not need changing and, as a result, he causes change way faster than necessary. But then, he also acts as if his lack of musical talent hinders him, despite the fact that he has a steady job already. He assumes he’s entitled to fame since he gave up some of his time to join the band, like he’s owed a favor. He’s not a tortured artist, just a struggling one. That doesn’t make him special.
I don’t have much to say about the rest of the band since we don’t get to learn much about them. Baraque and Nana speak French and Clara can be violent. I wish we got to learn more about Clara’s close friendship with Frank, but that’s not the main focus of the movie. Gyllenhaal herself is quite fierce in her performance. I can understand why she wasn’t trusting of Jon since he tried to change Frank, but she came off as antagonistic from the start, so I’m guessing she just has anger issues. I mean, she did talk about how she’d like to stab Jon.
As I said, Frank is quite the oddball of a movie. It gives us a look at a musicians’ focus on their craft, no matter how strange or different it may seem to us. It shows the value of maintaining devotion to music, regardless of fame. We’re asked whether we would rather maintain our own identity and self-expression or sacrifice that in exchange for fame and fortune. Is fame even worth it if you’re not happy? Frank is not for everyone because of how odd some will find it. However, beneath the strangeness that is this film is an enjoyable watch about a man who loves to perfect his craft. Despite not seeing his face for most of the film, Michael Fassbender is expressive from start to finish. But once that head comes off, we see how fragile and vulnerable he truly is.