Any film scripted by the brilliant Jon Ronson, who specialises in exploring and dissecting mental weirdness, is obviously going to be quite weird itself, and Frank is most definitely that.
It is also by turns laugh-out-loud funny, poignant and uncomfortable – a bit like the cartoon head worn by Frank (Michael Fassbender), lead songwriter and singer with avant-garde band, The Soronprfbs.
For aspiring but untalented keyboard player Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a chance meeting with the band when they come to play in his seaside home town turns into an invitation to join them as they record their new album.
What ensues is 18 months of self-inflicted mayhem and madness with the band members incarcerated in a cabin by a loch as the group dynamic implodes. Frank, who never takes his false head off – even while showering – is charismatic, a musical genius and very obviously mentally fragile. He is fiercely guarded by his muse and Theremin-player Clara (a wonderfully perverse performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal).
But as Jon becomes more obsessed with Frank (who is mostly inspired by Chris Sievey’s character Frank Sidebottom, but also incorporates other artists like Daniel Johnston) the band’s music and his own role in its creation, Frank himself starts to lose his already tentative hold on reality and one worries for his sanity. As Jon (who narrates the movie) captures the band’s and Frank’s disintegration on his phone, posting the clips on YouTube, The Soronprfbs gain a cult following and are invited to the South by South West music festival in Frank’s native America – but will the trip home restore his mental health, or disorientate him further?
Although the film’s latter part is less successful and flatter than its brilliantly funny beginning, there is much here to enjoy. Michael Fassbender’s performance is remarkable considering you never see his facial expressions until the film’s finale, yet he can convey more emotion with a mere shrug of his shoulders than many other actors can do with a myriad of facial contortions – and the audience becomes very protective of the endearing Frank, almost to the same extent as Clara.
But Fassbender’s performance isn’t the only stand out here. Maggie Gyllenhaal is fantastic as mad, bad, bonkers Clara, a she-wolf guarding her pup with fangs bared. Then there’s the music, written by Stephen Rennicks.
Apart from the main characters (who all learned to play their instruments for the film and do their own singing) the other members of the band are played by real-life musicians and it shows in the scenes when they are performing – they look and feel and sound like a proper band, which adds to the film’s authenticity.
2014 is turning into a really vintage year for small, quirky, indie movies full of imagination and innovation and Frank is definitely one of them.