Kurt Vonnegut once confessed that he was the victim of a happy childhood—a terrible tragedy to befall one with a yen to make it in the artistic world. Any artist worth their salt has clearly risen up from an abusive upbringing, mental illness, and an addiction or two. How else could they produce such great and tortured works of art?
Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is one of the unlucky. The product of two well-to-do suburban parents who are nothing but supportive of their child and his ambitions. As Vonnegut would say, “[that] is no way for a writer to begin.”
Jon is an aspiring singer/songwriter, and his dream is so thick that it clouds the rest of his judgment. Unfortunately, the size of his dream is not matched in the size of his talent, and the peak of his songwriting ability is his musings about women in different colored jackets. To make it, he will have to join forces with someone much more talented than him, and that moment comes when he is offered a gig as a keyboardist for the band with the unpronounceable name, The Sonorfpbs. Their current keyboardist tried to drown himself in the English sea, and they have a vacancy, one that Jon is more than willing to fill. Where some may see an omniscient shadow of things to come, Jon can only see his big break.
The name, Sonorfpbs, matches the music. Composed by Nana (Carla Azar) on drums, Baraque (François Civil) on guitar, Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) on Theremin, and Frank (Michael Fassbender)—their lead singer and visionary—who lives every day of his life wearing a giant fake paper mâché head.
The gig lasts approximately 45 seconds before it all falls apart, but it’s enough to hook Jon. Frank extends him an invitation to join the band, and they head off to the Irish countryside to record their next album. More time is spent experimenting with noises, engaging in mental and physical exercises than writing and recording actual music. Jon keeps himself busy by acting as their unofficial public relations man, Tweeting, YouTubing, and blogging their sessions and slowly building up a large following of Frank fans. Their break comes when they are offered a gig at SXSW. Is the world ready for Frank? Because Frank sure as hell isn’t ready for the world.
Frank addresses mental illness head-on and in a very, well, frank manner. Everyone in the band suffers from some sort of mental illness, some more publically than others, and Jon—like many aspiring artists—associate the illness with the artistry. Upon the conclusion of Frank, Jon isn’t any closer to becoming the great singer/songwriter that he hopes to be, and maybe it’s not his lack of illness or happy childhood that has cursed him. Maybe he just never had it in the first place.
The real beauty and humor of Frank is Fassbender and his commitment to his role. Fassbender, who has played everything from a comic book villain to a man struggling with sex addiction, has always committed himself body and soul to the performance. Frank lives every moment of every day under that giant fake head, and you completely believe it. Jon has his skepticism of Frank and the face underneath, but not Clara and the others. To them, the fake head is just as realistic as the one under it.
Unbelievably, the material for Frank was based on journalist Jon Ronson and his three-year musical career with Frank Sidebottom (Chris Sievey), a man who performed cover songs from under a giant paper mâché head. Ronson, who co-wrote the script with Peter Straughan, borrows liberally from real life (some dialogue exchanges remain wholly intact) and grounds this silly and absurd tale with a very real look at both the desire to become famous and the crippling nature of mental illness. Before the material becomes too grim, comedy is injected into the script and makes for a genuinely warm and funny movie.
Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson
Written by: Jon Ronson & Peter Straughan
Produced by: David Barron, Ed Guiney, Stevie Lee, Andrew Lowe
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal, François Civil, Carla Azar
Magnolia Pictures, Rated R, Running time 95 minutes, Released August 15, 2014