Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
“Do you know C, F and G? You’re in.” With that, office drone and wannabe songwriter Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is recruited to be the keyboardist for an anarchic band with an unpronounceable name, whose frontman, Frank (Michael Fassbender), never takes off a giant papier-maché head. Jon is soon whisked off to darkest rural Ireland for a mammoth, 11 month long rehearsal session. His initial delight dims as he realizes that his fellow band members aren’t just eccentric, the founding members actually hail from a mental institution. But then again, there’s Frank. Awed by his talent, Jon’s instinct is to turn it somehow to commercial advantage. But to do that, he must reckon with Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the bolshy theremin player who guards Frank like a devoted Doberman.
One problem some viewers might have with Lenny Abrahamson’s comedy is that it’s a story that really wants to take place back in the ’60s or ’70s, when bands routinely used to hole up in remote cottages for months, living as communes. Jon himself seems like a polite, uptight young Englishman of an an earlier age – his voice-overs are delivered with the hushed enthusiasm of a trendy vicar talking about a successful harvest festival. Yet the setting is modern day, and that entails a certain fudging and a few implausibilities. In particular it’s strange that Frank is apparently oblivious to the existence of YouTube until Jon tells him about it, whereas you would have think he would be an old hand at posting crazy videos.
There’s also the question of how much the Frank in the film relates to his real-life inspiration, Frank Sidebottom, the big head-wearing alter ego of northern comedian Chris Sievey, with whom co-scriptwriter Jon Ronson toured in the ’80s – and for that matter, how much that Jon relates to screen Jon. The answer (in both cases) would seem to be not at all. They’ve kept the Head, but that’s about it. Which is fine for the general viewer, but you can see how fans of Frank Sidebottom must find it quite distracting.
However, if you can get over those issues, Frank is probably the best movie about a made-up band since The Commitments. It manages a couple of extremely difficult things seemingly effortlessly. Firstly, it convince you that Frank is an exceptional person – not just a musical genius who can conjure a tune out of anything, but also a shaman, a superman and a warm, sunny presence who makes the world a better and more interesting place. Secondly, the music is actually pretty good – almost too good, in fact, because listening to it you don’t think Jon’s ambitions for the band seem unrealistic. Thirdly, the film is really, really funny, with masses of quotable dialogue and layers of wit that only emerge on a second or third viewing.
Speaking in a deep, honking, Iggy Pop voice, chivvying the other band members into creativeness they don’t know is in them, chasing them around like chickens, Michael Fassbender is an absolute revelation – imposing but also amusing, capable of great sweetness and vulnerability. (And let’s spare a thought, too, for the Head’s great performance – you’d swear its expression changes on occasion, a little smug here, totally gutted there.) But Gleeson more than holds his own, taking his character through various metamorphoses from callow youth to a kind of bearded Ben Gunn figure to a spiteful cynic whose adoration for Frank had stagnated into a poisonous loathing. Meanwhile, Maggie Gyllenhaal gives a commendably unstarry supporting turn as Clara, with her permanent death stare and her knife hidden in her bra.
In the accompanying behind the scenes featurette, everyone talks about the film as a pretty straightforward tale of worldly ambition versus pure artistic impulse, with Jon as the villain of the piece, as the prospect of fame makes his own head swell to an unmanageable size. But that is to do the film a disservice. It’s much more complicated than that, and that’s why it’s also very touching and melancholy as well as brilliantly funny. If Jon is deadly to the band, they’re just as deadly to him. They survive by consuming keyboard players, getting through three over the course of the film, and early on there’s a moment when he stares into the gasping, wild-eyed, ginger-bearded face of the man he’s replacing and it’s like he’s seeing his own future. Needling him and breaking him down, they exploit him just as much as he longs to exploit them, and it’s in the difference between the simple givingness of music and the selfishness of our personal drives that the film finds its particular ache. Picking away at these subtleties, you come away from Frank with a lot to ponder, that’s if you’re not busily humming tunes with titles like “Tuft” and “Ginger Crouton”.
As well as a 13-minute behind the scenes, the disc includes two enjoyably chatty and amusing audio commentaries. From Lenny Abrahamson, Domhnall Gleeson and Stephen Rennicks (who wrote the music), we learn that Gleeson wanted to play his part with a perm, that the band rehearsed for a week and recorded live tracks of the songs before shooting began, and that “Ginger Crouton” is about the near-drowning of the keyboard player Jon is replacing (although you could argue that it’s also about Jon himself, that he is the ginger crouton – it’s a song with a lot of levels). The other commentary, with scriptwriters Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan, is also extremely informative and entertaining. They talk fascinatingly about the different gags and plot devices they toyed with as they developed the screenplay, and how the idea for it originated on the one hand from an article that Ronson penned for The Guardian about his time playing keyboard for the Frank Sidebottom Band, and on the other hand from Straughan’s desire to write about a Captain Beefheart-like character. It’s revealed that they originally wanted Johnny Depp for Frank but that Fassbender stepped in quickly to secure the part, and that Tom Waits, the Flaming Lips and Black Francis were all considered for involvement in the soundtrack before the task was eventually handed to Stephen Rennicks. And apparently Carla was originally supposed to be a Klaus (based on Klaus Kinski and his mutually destructive relationship with Werner Herzog).