The relentlessly off-beat, and purposefully awkward new comedy Frank takes a literal approach to the expression “he has a good head on his soldiers,” turning the phrase into a bizarre visual refrain, a symbol for the possibilities and perils that masks provide.
The eponymous character—if not really the movie’s main one, than certainly its most charismatic—is a cultish indie singer who wears a fiberglass head the size of a beach ball. The smooth orb has painted-on, cartoonish features: pinkish complexion; fulsome lips; saucer like eyes that may be pleading or just plain vacant; an architectural nose; perfect businessman’s hair. This head is not just a prop but also an essential part of Frank’s constructed identity since he’s always got the thing on—on stage and off. Frank’s “good head” is both harmless and scary, a blank screen onto which the aspirations and fears of others can be projected.
In this guise Frank dispenses transformative, oracular utterances to his devout followers—from band members to random German tourists who unexpectedly turn up at the band’s Irish retreat thinking they’ve rented the place for their holiday. These followers see the head as a prophet, both singer and savior. A graven image with moving arms and legs, Frank is an idol in both senses of the word. Helping supply energy to this static joke is the fact that behind the mask are hidden the chiseled features of the Irish-German actor, Michael Fassbender whose handsome face is only revealed in the film’s last chapter. Even then his visage remains paralyzed by the mental illness of which the mask seems both to have been the cause and the vital therapy.
We all know that it is not just performers that have their costumes and masks, the props and postulates that allow them to inhabit the roles they play. The same holds for the domain generally known as “real” life, whether it be choosing just the right pastel polo shirt for Casual Friday or the proper face-paint for the real-life encounter with the computer date of your dreams or nightmares. In his seminal Paradox of Acting, Denis Diderot likened the convincing thespian to someone ensconced in a cane cage; the true actor representing emotion while feeling nothing. If he exposes his heart and plays directly from his feelings, the actor becomes impotent to move others, for he becomes, by turns, too overheated and too feeble.
Frank can only move and motivate others—and indeed himself—from inside the cocoon of his puppet-like head.
Accordingly, the film explores a thin slice of the huge space between surface and depth—the shell game of life. The movie is directed by the highly-decorated Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson with a brilliant eye for emotional detail among the unmasked characters—the glare of jealousy; the flaccid longing for fame; the need to be understood and loved.
Made with the support of European funding sources Frank is an unlikely creation that takes a real life character and plants him in an exaggerated and eccentric fictional world marked by monomaniacs, suicides, dashed hopes—all this depression and despair punctuated by moments of ecstasy and hope. The movie was written by Peter Straughan and Jon Ronson, the self-styled gonzo journalist whose account of the Manchester singer and comic Chris Sievey (who died in 2010 and to whom the film is dedicated) was the springboard for the film. Ronson was for a time the keyboard player in the band of Sievey’s alter ego Frank Sidebottom: a cult figure who wore an oversized papier-mâché identical to Fassbender’s in Frank. The film’s narrator is also called Jon—another a riff on reality—and he’s also a keyboard player. The part is a played with paradoxically passive intensity by Domhnall Gleeson, who finds himself drafted into Frank’s band when he watches the group’s original keyboardist attempt unsuccessfully to drown himself in the sea. The band’s manager is also standing nearby to view the spectacle and Jon tells him that he, too, is a keyboard player; asked if he knows “C, F, and G” Jon responds in the affirmative and gets the gig, thereby embarking on the adventure that first frees him from him stultifying middle England office job, and then sends him to a secluded Irish compound set on and forbiddingly beautiful Irish bay where the dissension-ridden band, whose name is the unpronounceable Soronprfbs, hopes to record an album whose goal is a kind of twisted, unattainable perfection reflecting Frank’s madcap sonic and philosophic visions. It is a desolate place in which only Frank’s weird charisma can extinguish the many outbreaks of cabin fever.
Beyond the musical aspirations and off-kilter worldview held by Sievey’s Frank persona, the filmic character quickly departs from the model. Whereas the original Frank did his routine in nearly impenetrable Manc dialect, his filmic offspring speaks in anodyne American accent and hails from Kansas—that mythic Wizard-of-Oz locale to which this Frank eventually retreats after his own person fragments when his fake head is ripped from his shoulder by the milquetoast narrator, Jon. He’s the band’s newcomer, a would-be musician who at the outset of the movie roams through the grey and misty streets of his English town using the quotidian happenings as fodder for snippets of song that he hopes might one day become hits. At the movies’ start, this loser still lives in his boyhood room in mum and dad’s semi-detached house, and he brushes by them after work to go fumble around with the harmonic and melodic clichés at his disposal. This postindustrial send-ups of Beethoven wanderings with meadows and woods around Vienna become the dispiriting cul-de-sacs of a hopeless Britain are some of the best moments in film. Here are sown the seeds of discontent that will later lead Jon to convince Frank and the band to seek their (or more properly Jon’s) fame and fortune at the indie orgy of SXSW in Austin. They get the invitation after Jon’s clandestine Twitter campaign accumulates a few tens of thousands of followers—not a viral outbreak but more like a minor rash of internet fame. Jon’s foolish belief in his minimal talents and his aesthetic orientation towards popularity rather than Frank’s otherworldly musical vision will have dark and disastrous comic consequences for all involved.
In a haphazard but generally engaging way, the film bats around perennial questions about life and art: the sources of inspiration; the tension between accessibility and authenticity; the nature of identity; the masks we all wear. The best bits come when Jon thinks up his ridiculous hooks and then when Frank takes this tepid musical material and heats it up with his own improvisational magic. Also good is the running gag in which Frank describes the expressions he is (or would be) making behind the mask as he mouths-off with an moving his fiberglass mouth. There is also something haunting in savoring the musical residue of past glories that lingers in the sleazy Texas bar near an underpass where the remnants of the band forlornly perform nineteenth-century ballads after the disaster of SXSW. It is in this cinderblock mausoleum that the unmasked Frank is reunited with his disciples in a final frenzied lament.
In the end, Frank’s journey from artistic elation through despair to possible rebirth becomes just another exercise in equating genius with madness. A movie about broken dreams and shattered psyches should not be asked to cohere, but quirky jokes such as those confusing human ashes with edible protein powder don’t make up the deficit. As to the fate of the main character and his disciples: Frank, my dear, I don’t give a damn.