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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - REVIEWS -

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?

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