Where naive optimism meets despair and confusion lies the weird and uncomfortable. It’s that curious spot that holds up Frank, the enigmatic lead singer of an experimental, underground lo-fi outfit.
Frank wears a massive papier-mâché head over top his own, one of the many oddities of his world that attracts young, bored musician named Jon Burroughs. Played by Domhnall Gleeson, Jon sings aloud his world and paints rosy the picturesque existence of the artist. A chance meeting with Don (Scoot McNairy) lands Jon a sudden spot playing within this ensemble, led by Frank.
Michael Fassbender inhabits this title character, a man who is adored by those few close to him (and not known really at all otherwise). His face is obscured but his voice and gestures are all the more evocative. The prosthesis never changes its look, yet somehow, with its wide eyes, slightly open mouth, and cropped, parted haircut seems completely expressive.
The look becomes a comforting sight, and hardly the only thing offbeat about this weird and wonderful dark dramedy. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, Frank is loosely based on the life and work of a British singer known as Frank Sidebottom, a character created by comedian Chris Sievey.
The Frank here is more mysterious, at least to start, and Jon gingerly and hopefully gains access to the band, taking to a countryside cabin with the group to write and practice indefinitely. While Frank warms to the young protégé, the others in the group (Carla Azar, François Civil), and especially Frank’s maybe lover and territorial band mate and theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), incessantly question Jon’s talent, dedication, and motivation.
While chronicling his odd journey on social media (he takes a weekend leave from his job, not knowing that this sojourn is more a sabbatical), Jon peels backs the metaphoric layers of Frank; that head, mask, what have you, is not coming off.
“You’re just gonna have to go with this,” he is told by Don, the manager. That is because Frank “lives all the way there, in the furthest corners.” Wherever there is.
Jon makes his way ‘there,’ and he brings us with him. The moppy-haired and dewy-eyed musician evolves to possess a scruffy beard, a few physical nicks and emotional scrapes, as well as an unexpected sexual encounter. While his life slowly changes and the curtains pulls back, it’s strangely his connection to reality and his safe, unaffected world that threatens the collective.
With a balance of charm and discomfort, new media and old sounds, Frank is a transfixing, sublime jaunt. Neither absurdist nor clichéd, Frank’s himself is a layered, tragic figure, suffering from mental illness, and Jon may be his undoing. Jon’s fascination with that which is strange and new, his desire to achieve something that superficially is captivating but can only be found through singular internal despair sends ripples through the fabric of what is an organic group.
It’s not necessarily a rise and fall; it’s a peek inside the ever-present ups and downs of those passionate and slightly off-kilter artists who dedicate their mind, body, and soul. The audience eventually parts ways with Jon; we can start to witness the breakdown and illness, but not yet the boy. Jon can’t quite see why they are off-kilter, and though he loses about a year of his life and just about every penny to his name, it’s his romanticism that is ultimately the most dangerous weapon to the creative process. And to health.