Mixing genres never works, especially surrealist comedy and character-based drama. Indie filmmakers often try it, and the seesaw of quirk and forced pathos is what makes people roll their eyes and wish for “a real movie.” But once in a while it does work – and when it does, as with Lenny Abrahamson’s ‘Frank,’ the result is something of a miracle.
‘Frank,’ co-written by Peter Straughan (‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’) and Jon Ronson (the journalist/author of ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’ and ‘The Psychopath Test’) and starring Domnhall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy and, wearing that ridiculous papier-mache head, Michael Fassbender, is a readymade cult classic.
I mean, it could be a hit right out of the gate, but that’s unlikely and, more importantly, not what this movie is all about. Like Llewyn Davis, the band at the center of ‘Frank’ is not destined for mass acceptance. Indeed, the band (a purposely unpronounceable assemblage of consonants) is all about genius for the sake of genius, and trying to bend that sound to be even a hair more agreeable spells disaster.
It isn’t an evil record exec that wants to make the change, but a force from within – the new guy, the guy who has all our sympathies, young Jon played by Domhnall Gleeson. Part of ‘Frank”s trick is how we in the audience ride alongside Jon, unaware how our seemingly benign presence is screwing up something beautiful.
Jon is just a dopey kid in a quiet British seaside town trying to write songs when he ends up as the new keyboardist in a visiting, whacked-out psychedelic noise rock outfit. At first it’s fun and experimentation, but when the group stays tucked away in a remote Irish location for a year things start to get freaky.
“We could make an entire album just based on just this sound,” group leader Frank (Fassbender) says about a squeaking door. And he says it from behind an absurd fake head.
His wearing the head – always – is something you just have to accept. His bandmates (a collection of weirdos including witch-like Maggie Gyllenhaal) all have. This isn’t to say that they don’t think he’s crazy, it’s just that, well, they know that they are on the verge of something. Not something “big” in a commercial sense, but something “important” in a cosmic sense.
All of this, of course, is left unsaid because these characters (and this movie) are far too cool for that. ‘Frank’ is also surprisingly straightforward in its cinematic approach. There aren’t too many jumbled, associative montages or examples of overly manufactured production design. Putting these characters in a “real world” is almost more exciting. It’s almost as if these giants really do walk among us.
In time, the group does leave their nest. They hit Austin’s South by Southwest Festival, and that’s when things spiral into unexpected directions. Cult musicians with mental health issues like Daniel Johnston and Roky Erickson are distinct inspirations for ‘Frank,’ more so even than Chris Sievy who really did wear a giant fake head. The film’s third act catapults the absurdist comedy into a territory of bonafide, heartbreaking drama. The final moments are an emotional revelation, truly one of the finest last scenes in a long, long time.
I’m hard-pressed to come up with other movies that are similar to ‘Frank.’ There’s a story beat similar to one in ‘Amadeus,’ and, sure, other rock band movies tap into the spirit of camaraderie. But ‘Frank’ succeeds because it examines what happens when a group of people bond together very strongly for a specific, noble goal. Movies like ‘Kinsey,’ where the core unit of scientists slowly go insane, is more like it.
And then there’s the tone. I mentioned cult classics, and more than once I was reminded of the vibe from one of the biggest cult films of all, Hal Ashby’s ‘Harold and Maude.’ It’s less in the story than in the attitude. (I was also reminded of two newer films I still expect to achieve cult status, Michel Gondry’s ‘Be Kind Rewind’ and Richard Ayoade’s ‘Submarine.’)
‘Frank”s biggest achievement is how it effortlessly slides from silliness to sympathy. Come for Fassbender wearing a goofy head and all of the extremely funny jokes, stay for the profound reflection on art, commerce, madness and companionship. This is, I feel, a very meaningful film, but it also has a good beat.
‘Frank’ premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.