L.A. Film Festival Review: “Frank”


Whimsy and insanity come together in an awkward but mesmerizing dance (much like songs played in minor chords) in “Frank,” a film about an avant-garde band whose lead singer wears a large costume head with a cartoon face painted on it. The concept sounds utterly ridiculous, but through it’s quirky characters and examination of a tortured soul who just wants to be liked, “Frank” has a lot of heart and somehow works.

The film opens with naïve, ginger-haired dreamer Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) living a placid, but charmless life in a small English town. Jon is a cubicle drone, who tweets out utterly banal insights about his life (“Panini with cheese and ham #livingthedream”), but his day to day life is just a routine as he awaits the moments where he can write down the songs he’s constantly composing in his head. A wannabe musician, Jon has zero outlet for his little songs and quietly yearns for something more. Right on cue, as if the antenna of the world is finally listening, Jon’s universe is transformed when he accidentally meets a strange, dysfunctional psych-rock outsider band (think a Shaggs-y version of the Velvet Underground meets Captain Beefheart and Daniel Johnston), the unpronounceable and cult-like Soronprfbs, who have lost their keyboardist to madness (trying to drown himself on a frigid English beachfront no less). With the band in town for a gig, Jon offhandedly offers his keyboard skills (he can play F, C & A), and much to his surprise, the band’s unhinged and loony manager Doug (Scoot McNairy), gives the young lad an impromptu chance to fill in for the evening. It’s a bit of a disaster, but Jon is invited to join the band anyhow. And when the malfunctioning, ramshackle group retreats to a cabin in the woods in Ireland to record a new album, their adventure begins. Guileless and way out of his depth, the experience is initially transformative to Jon, but eventually begins to take on a much darker edge.

Irish director Lenny Abrahamson beguiles with this weird mix of moods and methods — goofy comedy here, sudden slashes of tragedy there, momentary eruptions of musical inspiration overshadowed by admitted mediocrity. Everything is light and hopeful until all of a sudden it isn’t. Even Jon’s high spirit and naivete turns into greed and an obsession with fame, but the darkness that arises seems like an allegory for things that happen in real bands.

Co-screenwriter Jon Ronson drew on his own newspaper article and personal memories of the late cult musician Chris Sievey to collaborate with Peter Straughan on this little odyssey about an ill-fated band’s attempt to record a new album and head from Ireland to Austin to appear at South by Southwest. Hobbling both the venture and the film is the invited intrusion of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a young English lad, into a very out-there band with the deliberately unpronounceable name of the Soronprfbs. An amusing opening sequence shows the carrot-topped kid making up inane lyrics to potential songs based on everything he sees while walking on the street. You’d think the boy has nowhere to go but up from here, but fat chance; he’s a genius just waiting — and waiting — for genuine inspiration to hit.

Still, when the unpronounceables need an emergency keyboard player, Jon is in the right place at the right time. The gig is a disaster but Jon is nonetheless invited to join them in Ireland, where they have obtained a secluded country house by the water where they will shortly record a sure-to-be-mind-blowing album.

Comprising the unit under Don are the very scary and hostile theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), French bassist Baraque (Francois Civil) and drummer Nana (Carla Azar). And then there is Frank, the brains behind it all, a fellow who was seemingly once under treatment in a mental hospital but is, most of the time, most genial, even if he doesn’t ever show his face. Frank is played by Michael Fassbender and, while it would be an unforgivable spoiler to advise whether the actor ever shows his own face here, it is fair to say that the actor who gave his most exposed performance in Shame gives his most concealed one here.

Given his purported history of medical problems, one can assume Frank is hiding something, from others as well as perhaps from himself. All the same, he is respected and revered by his bandmates, even if Clara is exasperated by the generous acceptance and encouragement Frank gives to Jon, who still exhibits no signs of talent at all.

But perhaps Frank has his reasons, particularly when, with nothing recorded after their allotted month in the house, Jon pitches in with an inherited nest egg to sustain them there for some time to come. Eventually, snippets of interesting work get heard, but it’s impossible to know what they’ve really got when, due to Jon’s enterprising tweeting about their oh-so-cool activities, they land a gig at the SXSW festival in Texas, where they head at the film’s 53-minute mark.

As the date of their appearances approaches, things go from bad to worse; band members quit and, at the last minute, Frank goes into a tailspin, his mental problems clearly reasserting themselves. On top of that, Jon must finally admit that he has no musical talent, that his dream was unjustified. For some reason, Frank always liked having him around, but his influence has, as he himself admits, been destructive.

The musical number played at the very end has a haunting quality that sends the film out on one of its better notes, but it doesn’t disguise the fool’s errand most of it has been. This is an odd work, to be sure, that may touch some people in a certain way that will be meaningful to them. There are fleeting moments of pleasure: A Viking-style funeral for a departed bandmember, an enjoyably ferocious performance by Gyllenhaal, random passages of music. But the best feeling is putting most of it out of your mind as quickly as possible.


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