"Frank" explores the fine and not-so-fine line between creative genius and insanity. Although you might assume a movie about an alternative rock band with a lead singer who wears a giant fake head that he never takes off would be a work of fiction, the truth, as they say, is stranger, and provides a compelling basis for a movie.
"Frank" is co-written by Jon Ronson based on his experience playing keyboard in the Frank Sidebottom Oh Blimey Big Band in the late '80s. Frank Sidebottom was the alter ego of a man named Chris Sievey, who wore a giant fake head almost identical to the one Frank (Michael Fassbender) wears in the movie. Ronson based the film's main character, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) on himself; both real and fictional Jon found themselves randomly in this band, ditching their existing lives in pursuit of musical greatness, trying to make sense of the enigma of the man in the giant head.
With screenwriter Peter Straughan's ("Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy") help, Ronson dives into a fictional replication of his experience with the band. Gleeson's Jon is an aspiring songwriter completely lacking in inspiration who gets an unusual opportunity to play a gig for an experimental band called Soronprfbs after he witnesses their keyboardist attempting to drown himself. Jon has the time of his life and agrees to travel to Ireland with the group, only to discover it's not a road trip to play a few shows, but a retreat at which the unorthodox Frank will stop at nothing until he's recorded an astounding new album.
For all the mystery shrouding his character, Frank is far from the most eccentric band member. In fact, he's the most congenial. We also learn about the other keyboardist, Don's (Scoot McNairy), volatile history with mental illness and musician Clara's (Maggie Gyllenhaal) propensity for violence. Unsurprisingly, Jon's gleaning from it all is that deep adversity and mental anguish is a pre- requisite to talent.
Director Lenny Abrahamson brings a natural yet surreal quality that honors the weirdness of the story, while also helping us access the psychology of the characters and take interest in what's happening in a very rooted way. He keeps the reality of what's going on with its characters in play while experimenting with a number of scenes that push the bizarreness to varying levels. There are elements of black comedy, but also of honest, soul-stirring truth.
The first half of "Frank" focuses more on the creative process and the mental headspace necessary to operate at peak creativity. When Jon signs them up for a very promising gig and begins pushing his own creative agenda, forcing the story to leave the confines of the Ireland vacation home, the film turns to examine the real pain of its characters and what happens to creativity when complications of fandom and notoriety enter the mix.
Throughout it all we see a gradual change in Jon as a character, and he becomes less likable because of all that his dreams and naiveté have wrought. This has a slightly adverse effect on the viewing experience, making it kind of painful to watch all these troubled characters with their misguided attitudes drown themselves in a sea of expectations and principles. At the same time, this leads to an honest, moving redemptive arc in the final half hour of the movie, when this bizarre flower of a story opens up to reveal its fragile insides.
"Frank" can feel rough and disjointed tonally at points and grow a little irksome, but much like how a band with a weird sound still has artistic integrity somewhere underneath that drives that creative choice, "Frank" stays committed to looking at talent, creativity and mental illness in a very authentic, productive way that makes it worth the quirks.
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