“It’s nice to see you. It’s really nice to be here. I love you all.”
I’m a sucker for critical opinion on movies. In most cases, if a movie is highly praised by enough critics, I’ll look past things like genre, director, actors and writers, and take the critics at their word. But every now and again, something just rubs me the wrong way about a movie before I see it. And in those cases, critical praise somehow works as further proof that won’t like it. There’s no rhyme or reason to this attitude, it just happens. And it happened in a major way the first time I saw a trailer and read glowing reviews for Frank.
A frustrated, wannabe musician in suburban England, Jon (Domhall Gleeson) thinks his stable upbringing and happy family are the reason he’s never made it as an artist. He’s the kind of guy who romanticises Kurt Cobain’s depression, seeing it as the fuel for his creativity. After witnessing the keyboard player for local art rock band “Soronprfbs” (no typo) run into the sea while suffering some sort of psychotic episode, Jon talks the band’s manager, (Scoot McNairy as Don) into letting him fill in with the band.
On stage that night, Jon meets the band’s key members, Maggi Gyllenhaal as the deadpan, dark and brooding synth player Clara, and Michael Fassbender as the band’s leader and singer, Frank. Only we can’t see it’s Fassbender, because Frank wears a giant, papier-mâché head absolutely everywhere. And while the gig self destructs in its opening seconds, the fake head is just the kind of quirky, superficial lunacy that Jon thinks makes a great musician. So when Don extends an invitation for Jon to join “Soronprfbs”, he can’t say yes quick enough.
Travelling to country Wales, the band work on writing and recording an album. Soon, Jon’s social media bragging and whining gain the band a little attention and they’re invited to the South by Southwest music and arts festival in Austin. After spending almost a year, and his entire financial nest egg, on sustaining the band on their bohemian, Welsh, musical love in, Jon finally starts to see some commercial success light on the horizon. But is Frank capable of handling that success?
In a lot of ways, Frank is as agonizingly twee and precious as that giant papier-mâché head made me think it might be. It’s indie film making at it most un-ironically self aware, and it’s very pleased with itself. But that didn’t bother me as much as it usually would, and I think it’s to do with the music. When you decide to write a movie about a fictional musical genius, you’re setting yourself a pretty immense task. You need to write songs good enough on behalf of this character for the audience to believe that they are a musical genius.
Frank gets that right by keeping the music just experimental enough that it’s hard to pin down in terms of good or bad. But it also keeps its music accessible enough that you can easily recognise the catchy melodies and song craft in them.
It says a lot about Fassbender that he can make Frank a sympathetic character who you care about, while being hidden behind a goofy, cartoon-like mask. His voice and body language do an amazing job. But the real stand out for me was Gyllenhaal. She’s absolutely hilarious in her stone faced, terrifyingly crazy way. And every time I laughed out loud at Frank, it was thanks to her.
I didn’t hate Frank, it was a perfectly fine way to kill a couple of hours. But it didn’t totally contradict my fears of its twee, preciousness. It really does think it has something important to say, and it really does seem very happy with itself in the way it says it. And I never quite got over that. But some of the songs are pretty cool.