I’m not the kind of person to watch a film twice. Why do people re-watch films when it feels like there is a limitless amount of movies in the world, and we only have a limited amount of time on earth? But then along came Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank in 2014. The fact I have watched this film not only twice, but four whole times, is my first—and biggest—testament to its excellence.
Winner of the British Independent Film Award for Best Screenplay, Frank is masterfully written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan. The indie film’s touches of humour are matched with unsuspecting calamity, making Frank the ultimate dark comedy.
“In soup… ginger crouton… Covered in grease!” the lead singer of The Soronprfbs sings out the first time we see him, on a dingy stage in a dingier seaside town reminiscent of anywhere along the grey British coastline. He is wearing a huge papier-mâché head with round, unmoving eyes and a permanently painted-on side part. It is not long after Frank appears onscreen that he and his fake head become natural—a simple fact of the titular character.
Michael Fassbender plays the unique Frank, although you may never guess it from the get-go with his face completely covered. Frank is heavily inspired by Frank Sidebottom—the comedic and musical persona of Chris Sievey—who donned a similar head and immersed himself in an avant-garde, alternative music world of his own. Sievey may not have gained widespread notoriety for his antics, but did amass a cult following for those who love a niche. As possibly one of the most unique and complex characters, within the film and beyond, Fassbender picks up the mantle of Frank with grace.
About Time’s Domhnall Gleeson plays the perfectly awkward and sympathetically imperfect protagonist, Jon Burroughs. A failing musician who gets caught in the whirlwind of the band with an unpronounceable name, Jon naively joins The Soronprfbs in travelling to Ireland after stepping in as their keyboardist. He is unaware of the year-long, self-enforced lockdown ahead of him, as the band attempts to reach artistic enlightenment and create the ultimate art-rock album. The remote Irish cabin offers moments that are both comic in their absurdity and deeply tragic in their reality. Not dissimilar from the COVID-19 lockdowns that have grasped the globe, the band’s deteriorating sanity during their solitary confinement now hits a little too close to home.
The songs alone, though partially framed as pretentious and experimental, allow the film to linger on the mind long after you finish watching it. Frank has some truly special earworms. If you find yourself searching for Frank’s music—to hear one more rendition of the hypnotic ‘Secure the Galactic Perimeter’—then you’d be in luck. In continuing to blur the lines between realism and surrealism, the soundtrack is available on Spotify, listed as The Soronprfb’s own.
The highs and lows of emotional intensity are another reason why I’ve seen Frank again and again. Spontaneous song-making turns to fisticuffs, to gleeful frolicking with German holidaymakers, to a Viking-style funeral. These eccentricities are sustained throughout, allowing Frank to be both complex and rewatchable. There is always something new to latch on to, something else to notice; there are always new depths of joy and grief throughout.
The rest of the band are walking complexities in themselves, too. Scoot McNairy as Ron—the band’s right-hand man who’s loosely in control—can no longer handle living in Frank’s puppet-headed shadow. His breakdown is farcical, but nonetheless harrowing. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the less-than-welcoming Clara, rarely seen without a cigarette between her lips, who spats with Jon and wails out a tune on her theremin. Another stark contrast exists between Carla Azar as Nana, the mostly mute drummer, and François Civil as Baraque, the sharp-tongued guitarist who rattles out quips in French.
When the band are invited to play at South by Southwest, the film takes us to Texas and the magical realism breaks down. Frank’s true struggles with mental illness are placed in the spotlight. Jon’s ongoing obsession with fame and marketing himself on social media leaks into the nonchalant vibe that the rest of the band exude. His constant tweeting, sharing and hashtagging frames Frank’s plot and is a prying reminder of how damaging, but life-changing, the digital world can be. Yes, Frank gains a following through Jon, but a following he never really wanted, and one his borderline behaviour cannot hack. It is just another testament to our voyeuristic society, watching on as those who dare to be different rise and fall.
As Abrahamson told The Dissolve, “although it appears to be an ‘art for art’s sake’ purism, or a sort of fundamentalism, it’s really just kind of an understanding that Frank is not able to handle this. That kind of attention does affect people, and I’ve rarely seen it affect people for the better.”
In Frank, the tortured artist trope is debunked. Suffering for one’s art goes unglorified, as much as Jon tries to find his own ‘inspiration’ from some torment or cryptic trauma. When Frank’s mental well-being comes crumbling down, we learn that music is not worth sacrificing ourselves for. We learn that sometimes people are just ill, and there is no slick way to market it.
Above all, Frank is ever relevant in our age of social media. We are forced to confront the ways in which the virtual gaze controls our self-expression, and how we grapple with being seen. If you need catharsis from who we are and who we pretend to be, then I have to endlessly recommend Frank. Sometimes the realest people wear the phoniest heads.
Words by Jessica Saunders.
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