NOTE: This is an edited reprint of my review from the Sundance Film Festival.
The thin line between creative genius and insanity is walked with humor and poignancy in Frank, a quirky tribute to those bands that live on the musical margins where practically nobody can find them. When those bands dare to compromise and make their way into the mainstream, what gets lost in the pursuit of acceptance? The most unlikely music biopic you're ever likely to find, Frank asks that question and many more while honoring those who have journeyed to the "far corners" of artistic expression.
Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is a bored office worker in a small, English town where nothing ever happens. He aspires to be a musician and songwriter, but can't find his own unique voice to express it, so he writes bland little songs about his bland little town, while also wishing he had some sort of troubled childhood to inspire him. He spends much of his time tweeting about nothing important to his handful of followers, and wishing something...anything...will turn things around for him. Practically on cue, he chances upon a man trying to drown himself in the ocean. Turns out he's the keyboardist for a band playing in town, the unpronounceable Soronprfbs, and Jon mentions off-hand that he has a few skills in that area. The band's goofy manager Don (Scoot McNairy) asks "You play C, F, and G?", and replying in the affirmative, suddenly Jon is a part of the strangest little family on the planet, but not everybody is happy to see him there.
Discovering that the band's leader, Frank (Michael Fassbender), wears a fake papier-mâché head all hours of the day is disconcerting at first, but Jon soon discovers that he's something of a musical savant. An aimless one whose style is too idiosyncratic for mass appeal, perhaps, but there is genius inside that giant dome of a head with the apple pie eyes and emotionless expression. Thinking they were getting away merely for a weekend, Jon instead sticks around at a cabin retreat for months while the band records their first album. Since they have no money, Jon gives up his nest egg to help them out, while also recording the sessions and posting them online to help generate buzz. His attempts to gain the group some fans draws the ire of Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the team's eternally negative Theremin player, whose focus is solely on maintaining the band's place on the fringes. Much of the film's humor comes from their exchanges as she systematically ostracizes him from the other band members, while Frank seems enamored at the idea of actually having fans. As their YouTube followers expand, Jon books them a potentially star-making spot at SXSW, which causes greater ideological clashes between authenticity and viability.
Unlike any film about musicians I have ever seen, it's not necessarily a downer like the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis, which was all about one man's inevitable failure. Nor is it necessarily a familiar tale of a group hitting their creative stride and finding legions of adoring fans. It's about how one goes about finding their own signature voice, and embracing one's unique qualities rather than pretending they don't exist. The Soronprfbs' problems, at least from a musical standpoint because they have plenty of personal ones, don't begin until Jon starts to compromise everything they stood for. They may be a chaotic mess of conflicting egos and personalities, but at least they are authentic.
At the same time, the film speaks to the issue of mental illness, with the child-like Frank at the center of it. A number of the group's members met in a mental ward, and we see the impact this life of a musician can have on an unstable mind. Fortunately, the film doesn't spend too much time trying to explain why Frank exists underneath that giant head. It's enough to assume that it's some sort of defensive measure or shell against the world. Writer Jon Ronson, who based the story on his own experiences with the real-life band led by Chris Sievey, chooses to honor their eccentricities, recognizing it's what makes Frank and Soronprfbs special.
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, the film is much like the band itself; chaotic, unpredictable, and utterly lovable. The music is catchy if a little bit messy, but it's especially good when you consider every actor is performing it live. In his most complicated role yet, Fassbender shows his acting mettle in a role where his face is barely ever seen, and yet he's a commanding presence still. Gyllenhaal steals the show as the angry and mercurial Clara, while Gleeson continues to assert himself as a stable leading man presence.
While some will consider Frank a little too "out there", those who embrace its peculiarities will find it a rare gem of a film that defies expectations and celebrates inventiveness above all.