bands, Best of 2014, bittersweet, Captain Beefheart, Carla Azar, Chris Sievey, cinema, co-writers, dark comedies, disguises, Domhnall Gleeson, dramas, dysfunctional family, entertainment community, experimental music, fame, favorite films, film reviews, films, foreign films, François Civil, Frank, Frank Sidebottom, Frank Zappa, Hayley Derryberry, hidden identities, inspired by true events, Irish films, James Mather, Jon Ronson, Leonard Abrahamson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, mainstream vs counter culture, masks, mental illness, Michael Fassbender, Movies, music-based films, musicians, outsider art, outsiders, Peter Straughan, pop music, Scoot McNairy, Shane O'Brien, social media, Stephen Rennicks, voice-over narration, Wes Anderson
Do true musicians create for themselves, alone, or is there always some sort of audience in mind? It’s a question that’s probably plagued the entertainment community since the first humans discovered that banging rocks in syncopated fashion caused people to get up, get down and get a little crazy. As music gradually moved from a pure art form into a commodity as readily quantifiable as real estate holdings, the question has become even more prescient: where, exactly, is the dividing line between art and product?
Is it even possible for musicians to create purely for the sake of creativity or is a marketing angle necessary regardless of how “experimental” or “outre” you are? Would past geniuses like Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart or Einstürzende Neubauten even be able to get a foothold in our current musical climate or would they be instantly written off and discarded for being too “uncommercial” or “difficult to sell”? And what, exactly, does it say about us if everything nowadays must come with a price tag? Art for art’s sake? Not on our watch, bub!
Leonard Abrahamson’s Frank (2014) takes a look at some of these questions, although it’s not as interested in the answers as it is in positing more questions: To whom, exactly, does an artist’s music belong? Does it belong exclusively to that artist? To their fans? Their critics? The world at large? Is it more important to stay true to one’s “vision” and languish in obscurity or is compromise necessary in order to insure that at least some part of an artist’s meaning makes it out, even in an unintended form? What responsibility do musicians have towards their fans and vice versa? Do the wants and desires of the masses outweigh and override the needs of the individual artist? And, perhaps most importantly: what responsibility do audiences owe severely “damaged” artists? If the very act of creating leads to mental distress for the musician, is it proper (or even moral) for the rest of us to consume said product?
Loosely based on Jon Ronson’s book about his tenure with Frank Sidebottom (aka Chris Sievey) in the ’80s, Abrahamson’s film combines elements of the enigmatic performance artist (known for wearing a giant, fake head at all times) with aspects of Captain Beefheart’s eclectic, “everything and the kitchen sink” recording process to come up with the perfect outsider artist. By updating the action to the present day, Frank also allows for some rather piercing insight into the ways in which things like social media help to shed light on previously unknown performers, for better or (in the this case) much worse. Through it all, however, one thought remains clear over all others: some people are just out of step with their era, regardless of what era that happens to be.
Our entry into the story is young Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), an aspiring singer-songwriter-keyboardist who still lives with his parents, is constantly on Twitter and seems to spend the majority of his time walking around, writing spontaneous songs about any and everything he sees. As luck would have it, Jon lands a gig with a touring band after their keyboardist, Lucas (Shane O’Brien) tries to drown himself in the sea. The band’s name is unpronounceable, their music sounds like an atonal, experimental jam (including theremin!) and their frontman, Frank (Michael Fassbender) wears a giant paper-mache head as he rants, raves and performs what seems to be some sort of stream-of-conscious manifesto. Needless to say, Jon is fascinated by the group and thrilled when he gets the call to join them, full-time, as their new keyboardist.
Once in the band, Jon finds himself smack dab in the middle of a fairly unique group of individuals: Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the theremin player, is almost impossibly angry and seems to hate Jon with absolute zeal; Don (Scoot McNairy), Frank’s right-hand man, spent time in a mental hospital and used to “fuck mannequins”; Baraque (François Civil) and Nana (Carla Azar) don’t speak English and dress as if they just stepped out of a French New Wave film. And Frank…oh, my…Frank. Our titular fellow is a complete mystery, a soft-spoken, well-reasoned musical prodigy who just happens to operate on a completely different wavelength from the rest of the world. His perception of “normal” is so skewed that when Jon asks him for a more “mainstream” song,at one point, his contribution still sounds like some form of mutant Martian national anthem.
Things go from “absurd” to “very difficult” in no time flat after the group convenes in an isolated cabin (on a deserted island, to boot) in order to record their album. As Jon tries to push the group into a more “mainstream” direction, Clara and the others push back with all their might: only Frank seems bemused enough to want to give it a shot. Frank’s idea of “normal,” however, is about as abnormal as it gets and Jon begins to dread the group’s upcoming performance at a South By Southwest music showcase: will Frank’s decidedly cracked psyche be able to handle not only the trip to America but the exposure to a (presumably) new audience or will Clara need to make good on her promise to stab Jon if he “fucks up America for them?” As their situation gets stranger, more strained and more precarious, Jon will gradually come to realize that some artists really are better off in the margins, away from the blinding-white spotlight of public perception.
In every way possible, Leonard Abrahamson’s Frank is a love letter to the weirdos, the freaks and the dreamers of our world, those individuals who follow their own drummer and, in the process, create so much indelible, amazing art for the rest of us to enjoy, puzzle over, debate, love and hate. Operating within a production style that handily recalls that other great lover of the misfits, Wes Anderson, Frank is a colorful, quirky, odd and utterly endearing film, packed with great performances and some nicely nuanced commentary about this crazy era we find ourselves in.
As a biopic of the original Frank Sidebottom, it’s difficult to gauge how well Frank hits its mark: as someone who’s only peripherally aware of the Sidebottom character, it’s pretty impossible for me to determine how “accurate” any of this is. On the other hand, I’m familiar enough with outre artists like Captain Beefheart to recognize bits and pieces of their history in the film, leading me to believe this is more of a melange than anything approaching a straight-forward biography. If anything, I’m sure that the character of Frank Sidebottom provided the filmmakers with a readily identifiable outside artist to reference, as well as giving the film its visual hook (that big, fake head is pretty unforgettable, after all).
By updating the action to the present day, Abrahamson, Ronson and co-writer Peter Straughan are able to make plenty of astute observations about the ways in which social media help to fuel (or, in some cases, create) a performer’s career. Despite never playing a single gig in the U.S., Frank and the others (supposedly) have a ready-made audience waiting for them, thanks to Jon’s numerous Twitter and Youtube updates on the band’s recording process. It doesn’t matter that their music is highly experimental and unlikely to appeal to the “average” music festival fan: social media hype turns everything into an “event,” even if for only a minute or two. As Jon comes to discover, however, interest in “hype” is much different from actual interest in something: hype is what gets bodies in the seats but it’s no guarantee that they’ll stay there.
There’s also plenty of interesting discussions on the dangers of exposing “vulnerable” artists to a larger, uncaring audience. As we come to know Frank better, it’s painfully obvious that he’s a deeply troubled, possible mentally disturbed, individual. This, of course, doesn’t stop Jon from trying to expose him to a larger audience: as a “true fan,” Jon feels that he has an obligation to expose his heroes to as many people as possible. As a similarly hardcore fan of music, I know exactly what he’s feeling: if I had a penny for every time I tried to expose someone to challenging, experimental or “difficult” music, I’d own most of the planet’s uninhabited islands, by this point.
While there are plenty of great performances in the film (Gyllenhaal and McNairy are particularly great), they all tend to orbit around Gleeson and Fassbender’s twin planetary spheres. Gleeson is quickly establishing himself as one of this generation’s finest actors, as handily capable of portraying sweet naivety as he is petulant bullheadedness. In other hands, Jon might have come out a much different character: too much “nice” and he’s a lunk-headed bit of stage property…too much avarice and he’s an unrepentant creep. In Glesson’s hands, however, Jon is nothing if not complex: we come to understand not only his over-riding desire for fame and recognition, at any cost, but also his genuine love and affection for Frank and his band. The last thing that Jon would ever want to do is destroy the group that he loves so much which, ironically, makes his inevitable destruction of said band so genuinely sad.
For his part, Fassbender works wonders with just his voice and body language: Frank’s fake head could have come across as just another gimmick but there’s never the sense that Fassbender takes the performance as anything less than deadly serious. It would have been incredibly easy to turn Frank into a childish symbol of innocence and purity but Fassbender is always able to keep the character fully grounded, even during the film’s more whimsical moments. For as often as the film builds genuine laughs and humor from the character of Frank, it just as often frames him in a poignant, bittersweet way that never fails to remind us of his ultimate situation: this isn’t just a quirky weirdo…this is a real, damaged individual whose unblinking mask hides a wealth of fear, insanity, confusion and sorrow. While Fassbinder has been a reliable presence in films for a good decade, at this point, Frank is one of his most subtle, vibrant creations yet. The moment where we finally see him, sans mask, is a real gut-punch and Fassbender deserves much of the credit for that.
Frank is a helluva film, no two ways about it. While there’s plenty of humor here (the scenes where the band tries to record their album are all great, as are any of the ones where Clara threatens to commit grievous bodily injury to Jon), the film has a solid emotional core that leads to some incredibly powerful moments. By the time we get to the hushed, intimate finale that features a band reunion in a scrappy pool hall, it’s pretty obvious that Frank is an exceptional piece of filmcraft. Whether you love music, love outsiders, love a rags-to-riches-to-rags story or just love good films, Frank should be right up your alley.
If nothing else, the film should give anyone pause for thought whenever they consider their favorite “unknown” artist: we might want the whole world to celebrate them, just like we do…but what would they actually want? Chances are, if they’re anything like Frank, they just want the chance to live their lives, in their world, under their own terms.