Ireland/United Kingdom. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, 2014. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal. 95 minutes.
A long time ago, in the north of England, there was a guy named Chris Sievey. He was a musician, a comedian, and a songwriter. Frank Sidebottom was the name of his signature character. When performing as Frank, Sievey would wear a gigantic cartoonish fiberglass head. Sievey died in 2010 at the age of 54.
Frank, co-written by Sievey’s longtime keyboardist, isn’t about Sievey or Frank Sidebottom. It’s about a guy named Frank (played by Michael Fassbender), frontman and songwriter for a band called the Soronprfbs. They’re kind of like the sound of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band married to the lyrics of Daniel Johnston. Like his namesake, Frank wears a gigantic fake head onstage. He also wears it offstage. As far as aspiring songwriter Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson), the latest addition to the Soronprfbs, can tell, Frank never takes the head off. And yet it seems that Frank is the most normal of the posse, which includes a theremin player with an anger-management problem (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a sound engineer with a sexual attraction to mannequins (Scoot McNairy), a French guitarist who speaks no English (François Civil), and a drummer who doesn’t speak at all (Carla Azar).
Frank doesn’t wear the mask to call attention to himself, the way KISS does, or to distract from his real identity, the way the Residents do. Instead, the mask and the identity are the same. The head is his confidence, his charm, and his charisma; with it, he leads his motley crew of adoring weirdos on their journey. When Frank débuts his “most likable song ever,” you can see exactly how Frank would see it as “extremely likable music.” Even if it’s a full minute of squelching synths and shouted random references to Coca-Cola, the Beatles and ancient Egyptian royalty.
By now you can probably tell Frank is more about mental illness than about the absurdities of the music industry, which I think is a rare tack for a film about popular music to take, although I could be wrong. Fassbender and Gyllenhaal, as the craziest members of the band, have the toughest jobs. The crazy rock star is an archetype unto itself and it would be too easy to take their performances over the top. Instead, they modulate appropriately. Fassbender turns in probably the best “actor in a mask for most of the movie” performance I’ve seen since Hugo Weaving in V for Vendetta. Gyllenhaal’s extreme tendencies take a tender turn when we come to understand what motivates her. Gleeson brings the audience-identification character, a wide-eyed optimist who somehow becomes the yardstick for normal.
Lenny Abrahamson’s direction is top-notch and the production is solid all around. Of course, a movie about music needs good songs and Frank delivers several, mostly provided by Irish composer Stephen Rennicks, with impeccable drum work by Azar and vocals by the cast members. Fassbender’s delivery perfectly reflects Frank’s psyche, turning the haunting closing theme “I Love You All” into the highlight. Yes, the songs are weird, but do you expect any less from a band called the Soronprfbs?
Frank is a sensitive yet unflinching examination of the relationship between artistry and anxiety, a glowing tribute to outsider music and those who dare to blaze their own path…even if they have to wear a fake head to do so.