A look at the film ‘Frank’ directed by Lenny Abrahamson.
Just about everything we do can be lumped into one of two categories; Success or Failure.
You nail the perfect roast dinner, or you find out you picked a great set of lottery numbers, or you make it to the end of the day without breaking a chair over someone’s head? These are all successes.
When a packet of crisps explodes instead of opening nicely, or you miss a motorway exit and go an hour out of your way, or you set the tumble dryer going without realising the cat was asleep inside it? These are definite failures.
Usually, where an item lands on the Success Vs Failure scale will depend on two things; sheer, dumb luck, and the energy one puts into the task. The Apollo 13 space mission, for example, was a case of luck trying to throw the whole thing sideways, but it was the energy, talent and tenacity of the people involved that swung it about and got everyone home safely, thus rendering the eventual outcome successful despite the failure to accomplish the primary objective.
If we think of our own lives, I think we can honestly say that the victories we’ve had in life, we can often put down to the ambition and drive we pumped into them, and that the disasters, for the most part, are down to rotten luck. There are some exceptions, but, as a rule, I feel my initial sentiment stands.
I’ve also been thinking about music recently. How it can be used as a means of self-therapy, how it influences our thoughts and feelings, how it can be used to fill an unpleasant silence, how it can keep you company on a lonely evening… Music is a great companion.
I know people who are studying in order to break into sound and music therapy, so they can help other people to unlock their souls or to find some solace in melodies and rhythms. And it was while I was pondering upon the idea of music as a means to better understand our inner-selves, that I reminded myself of an absolute gem of a film called ‘Frank’.
This is a film that starts off following Domhnall Gleeson’s character, Jon, as he desperately attempts to find inspiration as a songwriter. A guy with enough talent to be able to piece small ideas together, but not enough to bring them to fruition.
A chance encounter sees him meet a touring band who have an unexpected opening for a keyboard player. Ambition and ego flare up and Jon sells himself into the spot. After one bizarre, but relatively successful outing on stage, he becomes a proper part of the band and he begins to try and exert some influence as he finally feels he has the platform to gain recognition for all the talent he’s had locked up inside him.
But something stands in his way; the band are all batshit-mental and their enigmatic frontman, the titular Frank – played to perfection by a concealed Michael Fassbender, is a guy who spends every moment of his life wearing an enormous fibreglass head that was inspired by Chris Sievey’s creation of the same name.
Nobody has seen the real Frank, and nobody in the band even cares to. They’ve accepted that this is how things are and that it works for them. After all, they’re a group for whom the normal rules don’t apply. Whether it be the way they compose music, perform it, or just behave in general, these are people for whom the social norm is an uncomfortable and distasteful place they have no intention of visiting.
Gleeson’s Jon is our eyes and ears for the film. He’s the ‘in’ for the audience and all the questions, concerns and doubts that we have are conveyed through him. He takes ua on the ride as he goes from being a nobody with almost no impact on the world around him, to being part of an avant-garde music group and generates a social media footprint that could swallow an entire country.
They record a studio album, they get invited to huge live music events, they gain media spotlight attention and we celebrate these incredible achievements with Jon as he savours the glamour of celebrity, but what he doesn’t see that we are aware of as the viewing audience, is that his ambition for global success is ripping the heart out of the band.
For a small outfit that sought to challenge the concepts of normal, being an obscure bunch of people doing very select small gigs was what worked best for them. They had a niche, and when they were broken out of it and thrust onto the world stage, they lost everything that defined them. And so we witness the spiral into anguish and despair as the character of Frank loses all that he held dear.
I won’t reveal too much more about the story line because it’s one that has to really be seen to be properly appreciated, but suffice it to say that there is a final act to the film following what I’ve already said where Jon has his wake-up call and realises what he’s done.
I think what I like the most about ‘Frank’ as a film is how it redefines our view of the characters as the film progresses. Jon goes from being any one of us who aspires for the opportunity to be a part of something special and achieve the ability to express himself through music, but transforms into the closest thing the film has to a villain while he unwittingly causes the band to fracture and break apart.
Fassbender’s Frank goes from being a strange and detached, but quirky and likeable figure to being a broken and troubled individual as a result of the new band member. Maggie Gyllenaal’s Clara goes from being someone with a severe personality disorder and a penchant for violence to being a sombre, placid, surviving element from the grenade that was tossed into their room.
Other band members also have journeys we follow them on, but the ones mentioned above are the most significant and, probably, the ones that will touch most people. But it’s a lovely treatment from the writers and the director also, who all allowed these transformations to happen organically without any blunt force or exposition.
The tone of the film is also one to note. For the most part it tends to feel fairly safe, centreline. But every so often, it does something that will either make you shut up and think deeply, or it will have you spitting your drink out as you try to stifle a laugh. It’s not a comedy, nor is it a straight dramatic piece. But whatever it is, it always hits the mark at just the right point for where the story is.
It would have been so easy to over-produce this film. With the type of music the band plays, one could imagine a lesser director wanting to shoot in such a way that the film feels avant-garde and experimental too, as a sort of visual highlight to sledgehammer the point home. But Abrahamson does a masterful job of giving us something that feels homegrown and easily palatable. Fresh but with just enough flavour to help it get your attention when you try it.
Note that this guy, the following year, directed ‘Room’ which was a beautiful adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s spectacular and heart-breaking novel of the same name. This guy knows how to put a project together in a way that works well. He doesn’t have a massive portfolio, but it appears that he’s got the golden touch and it makes me curious to see what his other directing exploits have produced.
One of the biggest challenges to overcome must have been how to effectively convey the character of Frank. Given that the actor was going to have his face obscured by the oversized, expressionless, fibreglass Frank Sidebottom head, the job needed to go to someone who could make us feel what he was feeling without the actors most valuable asset.
Fassbender landed the role and absolutely nailed it. Admittedly, it sometimes feels as though every film made in the last twenty years has had Michael Fassbender in it somewhere, but this truly is a performance like none-other. His character is a bit larger than life, and because he can’t express himself using his face, his overall performance is larger than life.
Every movement, every intonation of his voice, it’s all dialled up to eleven. It’s like people who say that blind people develop super-hearing to make up for the loss of sight… Because we’ve lost our primary way to connect to Frank, everything else is just that little bit extra to cover for it.
It’s not until the very final moments of the film that the real Fassbender can actually be seen, until that point, it could have been anyone wearing the head, but it’s a performance that must be chalked up as one of the highlights of his extensive library to date.
It’s hard for me to come up with anything bad to say about ‘Frank’. There are those who will find the bands music appallingly bad. Thing is though, that’s kinda the point. Remember what I said earlier about them “just doing their thing”? There are other great films that have music contained there-in that is hard to stomach… ‘Lords of Chaos’ is one such example of a film everyone ought to see at least once, even if Norwegian thrash death metal isn’t something you particularly care about.
Others berate ‘Frank’ for being a totally inaccurate depiction of Frank Sidebottom. Newsflash: It ain’t a film about Frank Sidebottom. It’s a work of fiction that was loosely inspired by a guy who wore a fake head. That’s it. That’s the extent of the connection. It’s not a biopic. In terms of following history accurately, ‘Frank’ ranks right alongside ‘Memphis Belle’. The key difference being that ‘Memphis Belle’ portrayed itself as a dramatic retelling of an actual thing when the only thing it got right was that there was a bomber with that name and it did fly during the second world war… Aside from that, the rest was all about as factually accurate a one of Diane Abbott’s news interviews.
Some criticise the pacing of the film once the story shifts from the recording of the album to the meteoric rise in popularity and the subsequent live performances. Remember how I said that one of the films clever techniques was to give us characters who morph from one to the other? In a way, so does the film.
You have to remember, this isn’t a biopic about the Sidebottom character. It isn’t a film about a band trying to record an album. It isn’t a film about how people make music. It’s not even a film about the absurdity of social media.
It’s a look at ambition, ego, greed, celebrity, friendship, loyalty and redemption. It’s a journey through the stages of bedazzlement, bewilderment, personal drive and personal discovery. It’s a story all of us can relate to at some level. There’s plenty of positive take-away once the end credits roll and, I personally, felt uplifted and inspired by it.
It would be remiss of me to not mention that the films does, eventually, ask us to consider mental illness and the effects it has on expression and creativity. Perhaps it is visited too late in the film to really serve as a device for the story, but it does provoke us, the audience, to converse about it while the credits do their bit.
For my part, all I’ll say on that subject is a quote from another character from something else entirely. But I relate somewhat as a Mark Corrigan in this world we live in so when he said, “God, it’s so great being a freak, no wonder there’s ten-a-penny,” I can appreciate his angle.
We all have aspirations to succeed and I think it’s fair to say that the overwhelming majority would prefer to do it without jeopardising the integrity of the world around us. There’s no grace in climbing over other survivors to reach the emergency exit first.
For anyone looking for an entertaining film with a good heart and positive message, look to ‘Frank’. A great success in its own right.
A reason why you should watch it: Good fun, good message, good story and a good crew.
A reason why you shouldn’t watch it: Because you’re the kind of idiot who’ll spend an hour and half bitching about why Frank has an American accent when Frank Sidebottom was British.