Musical Madness: Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank (2014) – Blu-ray review
Whimsy is easy to film – especially when your title character is wearing a giant head. But pain is harder to capture – especially beneath the mask.
(Lenny Abrahamson, 2014)
It’s probably weird enough for the uninitiated to watch Frank and try to figure out why somebody made a film about a guy who wears an oversized papier-mâché head. Yet it’s stranger still for the generation of Brits who grew up watching Mancunian comedian Chris Sievey’s alter ego, Frank Sidebottom. Years before Sacha Baron Cohen or Leigh Francis found careers creating immersive personalities that allowed them free satirical rein over their hapless on-screen partners, Sievey was forging an altogether odder, Dadaist commentary on the nature of performance and fame.
But a film? Nah. An archive cameo in Filth, sure. But a fully-fledged big-screen version seemed impossible after Sievey’s death from cancer in 2010. Yet here we are, and the genius of Frank is that, bar the iconic shape of that head, this has nothing to do with Silvey or even Mr Sidebottom, who is never mentioned during the film.
Instead, it’s the springboard into an entirely different character – an American musician whose mystique chimes with the atonal psychedelia and Jim Morrison-meets-Captain Beefheart lyrics of his band, the fabulously named Soronprfbs. There are obvious ways in which the film uses the Frank mask as a metaphor, but the most interesting is the notion that this could almost become a franchise, in which different directors all over the world might tell their own tale about some guy who decides to don the big-eyed head.
Those sequels would have to find some pretty amazing ideas, though, since this film has nicked most of the good’uns. The music scene setting allows screenwriters Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan a huge playground in which to experiment with notions of how art can be an escape from reality, a means to make a living and other related matters. At its most basic, Frank is instantly one of the great fictional band tales, as keenly observed as This Is Spinal Tap in documenting the pretensions, egos, bad decisions and recurring deaths that plague a band.
Notably, though, the film strikes a very modern tone in its use of social media, as Twitter and YouTube become the means by which an underground, decidedly difficult brand of music might reach a larger audience. Pertinent questions are being posed about whether talent will out or if it needs a push, or whether the rapidity of today’s industry ‘breaks’ bands in more ways than one by exposing them before they’re ready, or whether jaded, seen-it-all-before music fans are looking for the wrong thing. Soronprfbs exist in a curious intersection between Pitchfork-approved hipster esoterica, and the kind of image-friendly novelty that propelled Gangnam Style to global recognition.
And with it, the film’s satire takes on a much more melancholic vein. Frank, clearly, is mentally ill, and however tenderly observed there’s a latent cruelty to gags involving him banging that big head of his. Meanwhile, Domnhall Gleeson’s Joe, the everyman who lucks out on joining the band, is a mediocrity whose attempts to connect can lead only to anodyne crowd-pleasing. In a very oblique way, both represent The X Factor generation – one a sensation only for his eccentricity, the other getting the fast-track to fame that all of the wannabes wish for. The difference is that, this being spit ‘n’ sawdust indie, Joe doesn’t even need an audition for the limited fame he can hope for… Oh, and Frank is actually talented; for all the affectionate mockery of his ‘found’ sound, composer Stephen Rennicks creates some thrillingly offbeat, original music, filmed by Lenny Abrahamson with undisguised awe at the creative process.
So is this a one-joke movie, or something more? Just as it is threatening to become all too obvious as a farce, the film deftly cuts its own mask off to reveal something lovelier than its initial whimsy had suggested. Abrahamson alights on a delicate change of tone that allows the character flaws to bubble to the surface; at one stroke, the film gives the ultimate riposte to the age-old lie that creativity and craziness are inseparably entwined, a myth that both Frank and Joe subscribe to in their own way.
Sure, this is a comedy – and a very funny one, before the abrupt departure of the laughs – but it’s also an anguished fable of self-deception, and Abrahamson judges it beautifully, assisted by a likeably flawed performance by Gleeson and a bravura one by Fassbender, who captures the complexity of Frank – the timidity and the talismanic charm, the sadness and the showmanship – largely through posture and the subtlest shift in cadence.