Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Runaway Fridge Productions/Element Pictures/Film4
If you’ve ever cared about music at all – and you’re reading this site so chances are you have/do – then you must see Frank. Frank is a wonderful film – and there are reasons to see it for what it offers as a film, not least of all an amazing performance from Michael Fassbinder, literally wearing a mask, forced into conveying sensitivity and subtlety without being able to use an actor’s main tool – the face. But Frank is about music. It is filled with music – and ideas around the artistic spirit. Its themes take in mental illness, control, the bubbling over from the underground, the strange push-pull of creating music in a group, the us-against-them spirit of non-conformance and the desperation to be taken seriously; to have the world come to you or at least meet you halfway.
And it features some pretty incredible music – composer Stephen Rennicks has been offering up clever stuff as a regular of Abrahamson’s films but his work here, composing jittery alt-rock for a b(r)and of misfits – and performed live by the group – is his finest work to date.
Frank is about music as art – about outsiders making music, about the power of music to transcend and about the ideas around creative genius. But Frank is also a tribute to Frank Sidebottom – the comic creation of Chris Sievey. The name – and the face – is taken from Sidebottom, that and the determination to exist from behind the mask. That’s actually about all. Though there’s plenty in the punkish spirit of this film’s themes and its character’s motivations that link it to Sidebottom – as tribute. Just don’t go in expecting even the slightest trace of biopic. To confuse that issue ever so slightly – Frank (the film) is a project co-authored/conceived by Jon Ronson. He draws on his own experiences as keyboardist in Sidebottom’s band. Ronson is represented here by the character Jon Burroughs – Burroughs is a worker-bee drone, caught between dreaming about being some sort of pop star and filling up a cubicle from 9-5. In that way Ronson has he milks laughs from ineptitude, creates and accentuates huge heart in his stories – in the observations – and places characters on the stage, no judgement, just a view; our job is to observe. In that sense Frank is a celebration of the ideal around artistic spirit.
Jon Burroughs gets his gig of a lifetime working with Frank and his alt-rock weirdo ensemble – Soronprfbs (even members of the band can’t pronounce the band’s name). From a shambolic gig to being whisked away to record an album, Burroughs is instantly under the spell of Frank – intrigued by the music he’s making, drawn in by the mystique of the mask.
And it’s here that Frank is less Sidebottom and more a conglomeration of famous outsider-artist musicians and strange-thinking composers. He can tell if band-members are even thinking in the key of C – he stands over them at relentless rehearsal sessions, the very portrait of a Captain Beefheart-like near-tyrant. There’s a thought that he paid a Daniel Johnston-like price for the gift of writing a few incredible songs. And the mess of music that drives and swirls beneath Frank’s chanted words is everything from The Shaggs to The Velvet Underground part-naïve, part claustrophobic and pretentious – almost instantly wonderful; always hints of the single life-changing moment that might arrive.
Burroughs is selling the story of Frank and his band via social media – telling the tale, an inside ratting his band out to the outside world. And that has Clara (a savage Maggie Gyllenhaal) pissed off. Though Clara’s worldview seems to run the gamut from pissed off to fuck you all. She’s a fierce protector of Frank too – her and Jon both want a piece of Frank’s genius; she wants to protect him from the world, Jon wants to take him to the world.
Frank is funny, deep, profound – beautiful. It’s oddball and quirky and perhaps the single best representation of the madness of making music in a group and all of the pressures – external and internal – that shape and/or ruin that process.
Frank is a must-see film. And it’s on at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival.