The droll wit and formal daring of Frank start with the casting. Michael Fassbender has been an X-Man, a gladiator (300), a sex addict (Shame) and an Oscar nominee (12 Years a Slave). Also a hottie, whose posters get drooled over on dorm walls. So why cast Fassbender as a cult-music icon in the title role in Frank and then ask the swoony bugger to cover his head in plastic for 99 percent of the movie?
Don’t ask. I’ll tell. Because the role is the kind of risk the reliably ballsy Fassbender likes to take. And because, well, that’s what Frank did. The movie is loosely based on the story of Frank Sidebottom, a.k.a. Chris Sievey, a Brit comic who enjoyed some underground success in the late 1980s and early 1990s by wearing a fake head with a cartoon face painted on it – only his inner circle saw him without it – and traveling with the Oh Blimey Big Band. In 2010, when Frank died of throat cancer, his wobbly fame had long since faded, and only his generous fans saved him from a pauper’s funeral.
It’s a hell of a story. But this movie doesn’t tell it. Odd indeed, since Jon Ronson, who wrote the script with Peter Straughan, his collaborator on The Men Who Stare at Goats, actually played keyboard for Frank’s band and admits to delusions of his own rock-star grandeur. Frank, the film they imagined, would tell the story from Ronson’s point of view, update it to the Twitterverse, add elements from other rock crazies such as bipolar Daniel Johnston and tyrannical Captain Beefheart, and take on the collision of art and commerce.
I know. You want to call bullshit. I did too. Then I got past my bias and let the movie wash over me. I suggest you do the same. You’re in for something funny, touching and vital. Director Lenny Abrahamson knows his way around eccentrics; just see Adam & Paul or Garage or What Richard Did. And he makes an ideal guide into a bizarro world where music is made on the margins.
Affable, ginger-haired Domhnall Gleeson plays Jon, the audience surrogate, who joins Frank’s band, the tongue-twisting Soronprfbs. The band’s manager, Don (Scoot McNairy), hires the kid only after the regular keyboardist tries to off himself. Jon finds himself royally unwelcomed by drummer Nana (Carla Azar of Autolux, who has also recorded with Jack White), snotty French bassist Baraque (François Civil) and Frank’s protective lover, Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a synth and theremin player whose attitude can cut glass. Things get worse for Jon when the band retreats to a cabin in the woods for 18 months to record an album that will make history.
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In the center of this creative circus is Frank, by turns impish and imperious as he strives for perfection. Try not to laugh when Frank does a happy dance or describes his facial expressions out loud: “Flattered grin followed by a bashful half-smile.” Fassbender is a marvel at using gesture, posture and intonation to reveal the joys and fears percolating under a mask’s fixed gaze. Abrahamson, writing lyrics to songs by Stephen Rennicks, insisted that the actors play and sing themselves to form a bond strong enough to overcome their characters’ professional and sexual rivalries.
It works, until Jon’s itch for popularity persuades Frank to agree to a stint at the SXSW Music Festival in Austin. Disaster is a given, which results in bursts of humor and heartbreak. Frank’s mask, repping the artist as the anti-celebrity and a wall against social-media fame-whoring, is the film’s driving metaphor. But its soul isn’t in satire, it’s in the music. That’s where real intimacy happens. Near the end, when the band reunites to perform the madly dissonant “I Love You All,” the movie emerges as a hymn to the healing power of art. Raw nerves exposed. All masks off. If I had to drop the critical mask and describe my facial expression after seeing Frank, I’d say: appreciative smile followed by a wistful tear.