He’s with the band
Lenny Abrahamson’s superby eccentric movie about a group of supremely eccentric musicians reveals some powerful truths about art and the disordered mind, writes Donald Clarke
FRANK Directed by Leonard Abrahamson. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, Michael Fassbender, Francois Civil, Carla Azar, Tess Harper, Bruce McIntosh, Haley Derryberry, Lauren Poole 15A cert, gen release, 95 min
The latest film from Lenny Abrahamson, director of Adam & Paul and What Richard Did, is certainly promiscuous in its creative weirdness. As every second billboard and every other blog should have made clear, the film stars Michael Fassbender as an eccentric musician who lives life within a fake ellipsoidal head.
Very, very loosely inspired by the life of the late Chris Sievey, Mancunian creator of Frank Sidebottom, Frank does good work at dismantling the dangerous notion of the holy fool. Some fun is had reupholstering rock movie cliches (the song most definitely does not remain the same here). On a few occasions, full-on Pythonesque madness breaks out.
Some of this was to be expected (insofar as that skewed scenario allows any expectations). It does, however, come as a surprise to encounter a sort of unintended sideways swipe at The Great Gatsby.
Domhnall Gleeson plays Jon, an ordinary English bloke with stifled musical ambitions who, one unlikely evening, happens upon a bizarre, unpronounceable band named Soronprfbs in his seaside town. When the group’s keyboardist has a breakdown, the titular front-man asks Jon to join up.
“You play C, F and G?” one of his new colleagues asks. This will, apparently, do well enough. Jon presumes he’ll just be doing locum at the odd gig. But, almost by accident, he finds himself transferred to rural Ireland for the recording of an angular masterwork.
The analogy with Gatsby is not entirely watertight. Jon proves more of an instigator than was Nick Carraway. Whereas the rest of the band are committed to producing the purest aural art (played on toothbrushes and Theremins, devised by Dadaist randomising games), Jon plots to spread the word via social media and eventually arranges a date at South by Southwest in Austin.
Still, like Nick, he offers the audience his eyes and ears as, increasingly outside his comfort zone, he goes among a fantastic community and tries to connect with its charismatic, unknowable figurehead. Both stories inevitably drift towards differently horrible deflations.
The clutter around Frank feels impressively authentic. Scoot McNairy (hassled manager) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (short-tempered Theremin impresario) have just the class of nervy edge you’d expect from people shut up in avant garde isolation during the north Atlantic rainy seasons.
Stephen Rennicks’s music is quite brilliant: odder yet less mannered than most of the Brooklyn-loft sub-folk baloney recommended by this week’s essential website. James Mather’s camerawork finds markedly contrasting tones for the sat-upon English coastline, the damp Wicklow lakes and the glaring skies of central Texas.
The core of the film remains, however, the relationship between off-centre Frank and cast-adrift Jon. The two stars play off one another with the tense, odd syncopation of musicians in (to use a most appropriate comparison) Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band.
Less committed to the outsider’s life, Jon introduces dangerous amounts of reality that threaten to destabilise Frank’s uneasy equilibri- um. As the musician begins to crumble, Gleeson’s touching performance – without dragging us through anything so wearingly hoary as an “emotional journey” – communicates Jon’s eventual grasp of fundamental truths about art and the disordered mind.
The most impressive aspect of Frank is its seriousness about psychological illness. Though Fassbender’s Frank is often amusingly odd and engagingly ingenuous, he is never presented as a circus freak. A serious disturbance is always bubbling beneath the shiny carapace of that unavoidable head and, when it finally breaks through, the picture surges away from comedy to something beyond categorisation.
“The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.” Wasn’t that from The Great Gatsby?