Rarely do you hear me complain about a movie being strange, but make no mistake, Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank is a strange one. And I’m not sure the film is better off for its strangeness. Apparently Frank is very loosely based on the Frank Sidebottom character developed by British comedian Chris Sievey. I knew none of that going in, so my apologies if my lack of knowledge affected my reading of the film. But hey, a film has to stand on it’s own.
Frank starts off brilliantly. A struggling songwriter, John, tries desperately to wring songs out of his environment. He fails, albeit in an endearing way. He’s young, marginally talented, and he’s yearning to find his voice and find meaning in the world around him. It’s sweet. It’s funny. It’s inspiring. He’s a young soul searching for his people. By chance he gets an opportunity to fill in on keyboard for a traveling band Soronprfbs. They’re a bizarre, angsty, experimental noise troupe lead by a guy named Frank who dons an oversized puppet like mask. Jon impresses and is asked to join. It’s a dream come true.
Frank, played by Michael Fassbender, is an odd duck. He never takes his masks off, and lurking beneath is a man with a history of mental illness. But he’s a musical genius and a guru to the members of Soronprfbs. He hears sounds others don’t. He finds art and music in everything. He’s inspired by straws, by homemade instruments, by field recordings, by loose strands of upholstery. Frank is a winning film when it explores creativity, championing outsiders who find art in unexpected places. Also, at the comedy level, the dysfunctional band dynamic is played for laughs, and it works. It’s a great rock film at the outset.
But then the tone changes and the film’s message gets pretty muddled. The band holes up in a remote cabin working on their masterpiece. It seems heavily based on Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica sessions. Frank is a tyrant, the band is isolated, starving, and Frank browbeats them into a mad perfection. The film turns dour, never regaining its comedic lust for life or inspired look at the world of creativity. It’s an abrupt change, it’s unexpected, and for my likes feels a bit out of control. From this point on, it was hard for me to grasp what the movie was going for. The film’s first act sets you up for an exploration into the creative process and then takes a right turn and looses its footing. There are still elements of humor, but they fall a little flat amidst the increasingly paranoid mood in the room.
The film definitely comments on a lot of topics germane to the artistic set. Frank is commenting on the quest for fame and about those hitching a ride on the coattails of more talented folk. The film has something to say about artistic ego and about social media messing with our expectations. But I’m not entirely sure what the film is saying about any of it.
It’s all too bad, because for 30 minutes I loved this film. There’s good stuff going on throughout, but I just wish the film had sustained its energy for the duration.