DIRECTED BY: Lenny Abrahamson
PLOT: A struggling young musician lands a gig as keyboardist in an experimental band led by an eccentric prodigy who never takes off his oversized papier-mâché head.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Here at 366 Weird Movies, we immerse ourselves so deeply in the bizarre end of the cinema pool that we sometimes lose track of what the mainstream thinks of as “weird.” When I’m watching a movie in a theater, I usually keep an eye out for walkouts as a good gauge of when a film is too strange for the comfort of average cinemagoers. There were no walkouts in Frank; actually, the audience laughed frequently, at exactly the places the writers intended them to. As much as I enjoyed Frank, as I was leaving the theater I was wondering if it could make the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies based merely on Michael Fassbender’s performance inside a giant fake head when a wide-eyed stranger accosted me with the observation, “that was one frickin’ strange movie.” (Yes, he actually said “frickin'”). That unsolicited endorsement of the film’s oddness, from a man who was obviously open-minded enough give a movie about a musician with a giant fake head a chance in the first place, is enough for me to give Frank consideration for the List.
COMMENTS: Steeped in self-aware indie music culture (Austin’s hipster festival South by Southwest is even a major plot point), the charming and playful Frank is in danger of becoming too twee for its own good. The early crisis that affords protagonist Jon Burroughs his opening to join macrocephalic Frank’s band “Soronprfbs” as an emergency keyboard player is one of the quirkiest and least depressing suicide attempts ever filmed, leaving us to wonder whether there will be this will be one of those consequence-free comedies where nothing is at stake and it’s impossible for any of the characters to be seriously hurt. And while Frank does play that way through its spry opening reels, it eventually shades its sunshine with clouds, as Frank’s madness progresses from cute to disabling.
Michael Fassbender, in what is almost a pure voice acting performance, conveys the fascination of the guileless Frank, a mad genius who wears his giant plaster head like a cocoon of childlike creativity. Frank is joined in his musical pursuits, which involve rigorous exercise regimens and spontaneous odes to tufts in the carpet, by engineer/manager Don, a friendly recovering lunatic Frank met in a mental hospital, and scary Clara, a sociopathic theraminist with an intense loyalty to Frank and an equally intense loathing for all forms of mediocrity. A French-speaking guitarist and a nearly silent percussionist round out the band, until they are joined by Jon, a struggling songwriter and competent keyboard player. Jon is encouraged by affable Frank and by Don, who sees him as an equally untalented kindred spirit, while the rest of the band considers him an interloper. Jon will attempt to grow as an artist under Frank’s tutelage, but can he find the divine spark of madness, or will his attempts to steer the band in a more accessible direction tear them apart?
Frank seems to cultivate an anti-success ethic, embracing the affectation that the only good bands are undiscovered bands. Soronprfbs, of course, is the ultimate uncommercial act: Frank’s ditties range from Syd Barret-esque doodles to full-out psychedelic noise freakouts, and the group never manages to get more than one song into a set before someone throws a tantrum or suffers a breakdown on stage. Ironically, however, as a movie Frank is actually pretty accessible, while still flying its freak flag proudly. It succeeds in finding an audience by being funny, from Jon’s fumbling attempts at basing songs at pedestrians he sees passing before him (“lady with a baby, that’s how it works”) to the description of the sexual peccadillo that got Don institutionalized to Clara’s terrifying moment of horniness. We can’t all be genius weirdo artists encased in fibergalss heads, but we can all laugh at Frank.
Frank is sort-of-based-on-a-true story. British musician/comedian Chris Sievey portrayed the hollow-headed character Frank Sidebottom from 1984 until his death in 2010. The script is a fictionalized version of writer Jon (“The Men Who Stare at Goats”) Ronson’s memoir about his time spent as a keyboardist in Sidebottom’s experimental retinue.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…[a] weird and wonderful musical comedy from director Lenny Abrahamson… [who] puts the pic’s eccentricity to good use, luring in skeptics with jokey surrealism and delivering them to a profoundly moving place.”–Peter Debruge, Variety (contemporaneous)