What a surprise, to stumble upon a truly weird and quirky independent film, especially one featuring a cast of recognizable faces like Domhnall Gleeson (About Time), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart), and Scoot McNairy (Killing Them Softly) along with the relatively obscured presence of Michael Fassbender. That’s part of the quirky charms going on in Lenny Abrahamson’s little gem Frank, which is about a head-scratchingly brilliant rock and roller – the kind of musician who can summon melodies out of thin air or the blipping, tweeting, thumping electronic nodes within the vicinity of his unique frequency – who wears a gigantic fake head not only during his performances but also off-stage, during every waking moment of his life. Every waking moment.
Imagine the challenge. As a filmmaker, you have to pitch Fassbender on the idea of co-starring in a film, a non-animated role at that, where he will spend most of his screen time in a large (and largely uncomfortable) fake head. Or what about the discussions with financiers (film producers) eager to see the list of talent involved, in particular, a headliner like Fassbender (the devilishly devious charmer from the X-Men: First Class prequel franchise, the glorious Adonis of a sex addict from Shame) who should be front and center in all of the film’s promotional materials, and will be encased in that oversized face-blocking mascot-like contraption. And finally, what about the adoring fans, the Fassy fanatics that want more than to hear the voice of their beloved, and might just storm to the front of the theater, en masse, ready to rip and tear at the screen in outrage?
Challenge accepted, and you know what? Frank is totally worth the effort, as long as expectations are tempered. Because Frank is about the fickle muse that drives talent, the complete and utter satisfaction of creating art for art’s sake, and protecting genius at all costs – notions that run counter to the immediacy and instant gratification that we assume must prevail in our modern age. Frank and his band, specifically the jealously protective Clara (Gyllenhaal) and their road manager (McNair), roam free and clear along the margins of obscurity, noodling and dial twisting their way through music that alienates all but the most curiously faithful. It is a maddening enterprise, which tends to send members off the deep end from time to time, which is where Jon (Gleeson) opportunistically enters.
Jon is a striver in this contemporary scene, tweeting and posting bits and snippets of ideas about what is happening to him on the way to stardom (not much, as it turns out because he’s not terribly talented). But he winds up in the right place at the right time and gets drafted to join Frank’s crew, first during a last-minute gig, then later as a full-on substitute as the band prepares to work on an album. He knows this is his one big break and he proves willing to do whatever it takes – sacrificing an inheritance to fund the production as the band’s practice and rehearsals run well over deadline, filming the recording process and eventually posting clips online to build a following that ultimately sets up unrealistic expectations for Frank who we come to realize is quite a fragile figure.
And that is where Frank the film shines brightest. It is not the music or the interpersonal squabbles between the bandmates or Jon’s annoyingly innocent quest to drag the band kicking and screaming into the big time. No, Frank matters because at its center stands a broke man in a mask, a literal mask that is also very much a metaphoric cover as well. Frank teeters on the edge of sanity, but the big fake mask hides just how precarious his high-wire act is, and Fassbender sells the effort to not let the effort show. There is a purity in his vocal performances that comes across as steady and focused, but that recedes as soon as the music stops, leaving us with the sense that Frank struggles mightily to hear the melody and beats of life.
This is exactly what independent film is supposed to do for us, to present these kinds of stories, the intimacy and the frailty that would get lost in the glossy production values of a studio release. Frank is the music of a band that needs to remain on the fringe, despite having supergroup potential. This is Bob Dylan and The Band working in the woodshed, never roaming out of Big Pink. (tt stern-enzi)
Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson and Maggie Gyllenhaal Star In The Critically Acclaimed Comedy Arriving On Blu-ray™ And DVD December 9 From Magnolia Home Entertainment Under The Magnet Label