There have been many movies which explore the fine line between creative genius and insanity. Frank gives us a funny and unconventional take on the question, providing in the process a serious contemplation of music, ambition, and the creative mind. The film is loosely based on the experiences of co-writer Jon Ronson, who once performed in a band whose front man wore a giant fake head onstage, but the story is expanded into something larger and more interesting.
The events are told from the perspective of Jon (Domhnall Gleason), an unsuccessful aspiring musician and songwriter. When a chance meeting gives Jon the opportunity to become keyboard player for an experimental band called Soronpfrbs, he jumps at the chance. Before he knows it, he is at a creative retreat with the band, led by their much-respected leader, Frank (Michael Fassbender). Frank’s tremendous musical talent is offset by his unpredictable, irrational mind, the most obvious expression of which is the fact that Frank’s face is always hidden, as he wears a giant fibreglass cartoon head which he never removes, not even to eat.
The story is from Jon’s point of view, but is told ironically in the ‘unreliable narrator’ format: the audience recognises things that Jon clearly does not, such as Jon’s own lack of talent at composing. We are able to see Jon’s perspective through a voice-over of tweets and online posts, which conflict markedly with reality.
More significantly, it is clear that what Jon romanticises as the natural eccentricity of creative people is in fact mental instability and dangerously poor judgment. The band functions largely as an informal support system for the emotionally fragile people within it, but Jon does not recognise that aspect of the group. Jon’s delight at being part of a band, and supposedly preparing for the recording of an album, blinds him to the reality of his situation. His optimism in the face of increasingly bizarre and hostile behaviour by his bandmates, and his dogged rationalisation of their oddness, is as funny as it is pitiful.As the band’s rehearsals continue, Jon documents his work with them on his blog, and we continue hearing his description of events, which are filled with enthusiasm for the delightful unpredictability of the creative process, in hilarious contrast with the real rehearsals, which are frequently disrupted by conflicts, even threats of violence, and especially by the emotional upheavals of Frank himself.
This chaos is not continual. During brief periods of actual work, Jon begins to recognise Frank’s genuine musical talent, and become uncomfortably aware of how vastly superior it is to his own, although he quickly distracts himself from this fact, reassured by Frank’s childlike affection for him that he is a respected member of the group.
The action takes a new turn when one of the band members discovers that Jon has been documenting their activity online, and that his blog now has a large following. They are irate, and even more so when they learn that his blog has earned Soronpfrbs a place in a prestigious American music festival. Frank, naively impressed by the number of people interested in their music, insists on attending the festival, and the band reluctantly agrees to perform.Once removed from a familiar setting, Frank loses his bearings completely, they encounter multiple setbacks, and the band’s fragile mutual support system begins to crumble. It is obvious even through his false head that Frank is fighting panic as their performance approaches, nervously assuring concert-goers, “Come see us! I promise nothing bad will happen to you!” In his determination to experience a moment of greatness, Jon continues to relentlessly urge the band on until the situation implodes completely. It is only after the festival debut ends in predictable disaster that Frank’s real nature, and the nature of his genius, becomes completely clear to Jon.
The film features an excellent ensemble cast, including Domhnall Gleeson’s charmingly hapless Jon, and Maggie Gyllenhal as Clara, a chronically angry senior band member. Michael Fassbender does typically excellent work with the challenging job of expressing the personality and volatile emotions of a character whose face is completely obscured through virtually the entire film. His Frank is at once frighteningly erratic and likeable.
Music is used to great effect throughout the film, appropriately enough, and helps tell the story. Jon’s mediocre and unoriginal attempts at songwriting establish his level of talent more than clearly. Frank’s musical performances, all sung by Fassbender himself, are effective in spite of their considerable range: a series of painfully eccentric compositions which push the boundaries of music are performed with complete earnestness, and during the less bizarre examples we are able to see the musical artistry beneath the manic surface. When Frank accepts Jon’s advice to attempt something with more popular appeal, the resulting performance is a delightfully absurd, demented attempt at mainstream pop music.
The sweet, wistful final musical performance, which concludes the film, expresses more than pages of dialogue could have done.
As a comedy, and as a film about human nature, fellowship, and musical genius, Frank is a resounding success.
For further viewing:
The Red Violin (1998 Director: François Girard) Passion for music is seen in its many forms, as the film follows the three hundred year journey of a seventeenth-century violin through its multiple owners.
Love and Mercy (2014 Director: Bill Pohlad) A beautifully told account of Brian Wilson’s struggle to maintain his musical vision while dealing with exploitation, depression and mental health issues.