Frank, Lenny Abrahamson’s eccentric but pleasingly bleak portrait of life in an indie band, is a stark reminder that just because something looks broken, doesn’t necessarily mean it is.
It’s a lesson that it takes aspiring keyboardist and songwriter, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who we meet as he’s walking home from his bland office job desperately trying to conjure up a song from the creative ether by throwing around random observations about suburban passersby in his mind, some time to learn.
Picked to be the new keyboards player for soronprfbs, a band with a largely vowel-deprived name – you discover much later in the film that no one in the band has any idea how to pronounce their unusual moniker – he thinks all his creative Christmases have come at once.
Sure the lead singer, Frank (Michael Fassbender) wears an enormous, almost-cartoonish papier-mâché on his head 24/7, and the manager Don (Scoot McNairy) was sent to mental hospital for having sex with mannequins, but Jon puts all that to one side in the heady rush to join the band for what he assumes will be one gig in country Ireland.
It’s not till they reach the remote island off the emerald isle the group has rented that Jon discovers that his commitment is vastly more extensive, and complicated, than he’d rashly supposed.
Soronprfbs is in fact there to record an album, a process than takes over 12 agonisingly slow months during which Jon personally and creatively bashes heads with the band’s remaining members – the passive/aggressive, mostly aggressive Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who may or may not be in love with Frank, and the openly hostile Baraque (François Civil) and Nana (Carla Azar) – all of whom form a highly dysfunctional yet weirdly cohesive family of sorts.
Jon is of course an unwelcome interloper and though he contributes his nest egg to keep the band’s seriously avant garde musical experiments funded when their original financing runs out, he is perpetually treated as a clueless outsider by everyone but Frank who, despite his mask, gives him hints of the sort of creative camaraderie he is clearly looking for from the whole band.
Ever the brazen optimist however, Jon is convinced he can win his largely suspicious bandmates over if he can just get them the success he knows in his heart that they’re looking for.
Ignoring the fact that they are perfectly content in their strangely twisted version of reality, in which music supposedly arises from being chased by Frank with a shovel or recording the sounds of nature by the most unique means possible, Jon fashions soronprfbs an ever-growing presence on social media via his blog posts, regular tweets and YouTube videos showing the band’s unconsciously odd music-making in full flight.
All this online activity, which Frank and the others are blissfully unaware of, bears fruit when South by Southwest asks them to perform, the answer, Jon thinks, to all their (really his) hopes and dreams.
But as everything begins to fall apart around him, both professionally and personally, Jon finally realises that soronprfbs were perfectly happy just the way they were, and that he has actually “broken” them.
Inspired by British punk rocker comedian Chris Sievey, who was known professionally as oblong papier-mâché head-wearing Frank Sidebottom, Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan have fashioned a gently stinging critique of modern musical culture where the urge to be famous often leaves artistic purity or true self-expressiion in its dust.
Gleeson does a superb job of comically embodying the socially-awkward, near-talentless Jon’s headlong quest for the sort of fame and fortune he assumes everyone wants, an assumption that is shown to be all naively-envisaged glitz and glamour and very little else when he finally understands it is worlds away from what Frank and the others are in the band for.
Their eyes don’t sparkle with visions of their names up in lights, nor avariciously scan Twitter in the hope that either they or their band will become the latest short-lived trending topic; they are simply happy to be together and make their distinctly odd though strangely beautiful music in their own bubble, as far away from reality, which hasn’t been too kind to any of them, as possible.
Fassbender is mind-bendingly impressive as the titular Frank, a man who, though described as “the sanest cat I know” by Don at one point, isn’t able to exist without his mask, or out in the real world where Jon is determinedly pushing him.
Frank, though suffering a little from discordant tonal shifts where it is gleefully madcap one moment – the visiting German tourists are hilarious – and desperately, crushingly sad the next, is an impressively-told tale of what happens when mainstream definitions of normalcy and success in all their grey-clad “glory” come crashing headlong into the sort of idiosyncratically fringe world that Frank, Clara and the others inhabit.
It may seem insufferably odd to Joe and Janice Average on the street – the bookending of near-identical bland suburban scenes at the start and end of the movie underline that exquisitely, effectively juxtaposed as they are with the more unusual elements at the heart of the film – but it is a place where the core members of soronprbs feel completely at home, and in which Jon is the unwittingly meddlesome interloper.
A gently affectionate satire of the creative process and the way in which the economics modern world has impinged on it, as much as it is a tale of dispossessed souls finding a place to belong however bizarre it may seem to outsiders, Frank ultimately reminds us that what we see as unorthodox and broken and in need of repair, is someone’s else perfectly-functioning, please-leave-us-alone-inside-our-papier-mâché-heads, life-saving nirvana.