The longer Frank sits with me, the deeper it seems to get. At first, a silly little story about a quirky experimental music group, it grows into a touching meditation on a number of topics, as honest about each of them as it is weird and wonderful.
Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is an aspiring young songwriter who can’t manage to actually write a song. He does manage to maintain a social media presence, though. Is it not-quite-honest or not-quite-serious? it’s hard to say, but with only a dozen or so followers it probably doesn’t matter.
And then he stumbles into a chance to join a band: “Soronprfbs”. He fills in for their keyboardist when they play in his town, which leads to an invitation for a thing in Ireland, which turns out to be less of a weekend gig and more of an album-recording at an isolated resort house that stretches out over a year. It’s a little crazy, yeah, but what keeps him there is the promise of living his dream, and Frank.
Frank (Michael Fassbender) is the leader and musical visionary of Soronprfbs, most notable for always wearing a giant fake head, styled after Chris Sievey’s Frank Sidebottom character. The manager and sound engineer, Don (Scoot McNairy), says he met Frank in a mental hospital, but swears he’s the sanest person ever; the head is just part of the same artistic sensibility that pushes each of them to their “furthest corners”. I mean, who hasn’t known an artsy type with some odd affectations?
So Jon settles in among the group, but never really with them. He films clips of their sessions and posts them online, cultivating a connection with the outside world none of the others seem to want. The aggressively protective theramin player, Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), finds the idea of publicity particularly distasteful, but Frank himself seems excited by the thought of reaching a wider audience. When Jon receives an invitation to perform at South by Southwest just as the band finishes recording the album, it’s clear he’ll be responsible either for truly launching the band — and himself with it — or destabilizing their tenuous equilibrium.
The vertiginous shift in tone may come as an unwelcome surprise for those who showed up expecting a silly, offbeat, indie comedy about a quirky, artsy, outsider musician. But this shift is the real heart of the film; the silly, quirky stuff plays into our popular assumptions, setting us up for the whiplash that brings us face-to-face with them. There are plenty of them, and I keep turning up more as I turn it over in my mind, but most obvious and most important is the idea of a connection between mental illness and creativity.
I hate to bring it back to David Foster Wallace, but who am I kidding, I love to bring it back to Wallace. It’s easy to say that his depression and his writing were linked, and it’s even true in a way. Being depressed brought Wallace into contact with a portion of human experience that he could then use in his writing. If Wallace hadn’t been depressed, he wouldn’t have written “The Depressed Person”, or “Good Old Neon”, or any number of his other works, including large parts of Infinite Jest. But we all too often make the leap to say that if he hadn’t been depressed he wouldn’t have written at all, or as well. We say the same about Picasso, or Syd Barrett, or almost any other “tortured artist”.
And we want to say it about Frank, too. Sure, he’s weird, and maybe some of that weird comes from mental illness. But as long as we think we can get something quirky silly and fun out of it, hey, that’s Frank. We’re glad to take it and have our fun, and maybe cluck our tongues a bit every now and then about how it’s a shame that he has to be crazy for us to get this music or this movie, but man it must be fun to be an artist like that.
Frank sets us up to say this, and then turns us around to face it. As fun as it is to see Fassbender cavort under that big fake head, it’s when the head finally comes off that we can see the face behind it — the man behind the music — and he’s just perfect in a way only Fassbender can be.
It’s an axiom of comics that the less realistically characters are drawn, the more we as readers can project our own ideas onto them. When Frank’s head comes off, we get a sudden rush of his reality. If that makes us feel weird — and not in a quirky, fun way — then maybe we need to think about what, exactly, we were projecting onto that big, blank face.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.