Maggie Gyllenhaal and Domhnall Gleeson flank Michael Fassbender, who's hidden under a papier-mache head. Credit: Magnolia Pictures
‘Frank’ Director: Lenny Abrahamson Stars: Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson Rating: R 3 (out of 5)
It might not seem it, but “Frank” — the tale of a band fronted by a guy who never removes a goofy papier-mache head — is rooted in reality. The inspiration is Chris Sievey, a musician who performed under a mask that looks exactly like the one in “Frank.” In fact, this music chronicle turns out to be less quirky than deadpan and absurdist, even darker than it initially lets on. Up until the third act, there’s a thrilling tension between the cute and the dangerous.
Our token audience identification figure is Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a perhaps too nice struggling musician enlisted to join a traveling band when their keyboardist gets too high to play a show. They call themselves the “Soronprfbs,” and their music is as difficult as their name. Their lead singer, Frank (Michael Fassbender), also never removes his fake head, unless he’s putting on his back-up fake head. Jon thinks he’s going on tour; instead they wind up spending months at a remote country cabin recording an album, for which they have no concrete ideas.
Michael Fassbender: lookin' good. Credit: Magnolia Pictures
That they play aimless noise rock rather than twee or even catchy or soulful music is a good thing. Ditto that their ranks include Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who never smiles and never misses an opportunity to be needlessly cruel to the puppydoggish Jon. In fact, in many ways this is a real, dirty rock movie, one that harkens back to the past while examining the present. The band’s epic recording process draws from Captain Beefheart’s “Trout Mask Replica,” but when they have to actually find a fanbase and perform for crowds, things become more interesting. So much of “Frank” is silly, but it asks tough questions about why bands make music, who they make it for and how they keep at it, especially in the face of what is now a crumbling business. It has a cartoonishly handsome actor hiding his face, but it’s a more serious film than “Begin Again.”
In fact, “Frank” winds up going too serious. There’s always hurt and melancholy and trauma lingering under the film’s nutty surface, but when it rises up, it goes too far. There didn’t need to be an explanation for Frank’s behavior, much less the one the film gives him. “Frank” throws a hail mary, and it does work, but it’s better when it lets Fassbender show off his underutilized comic chops. It’s a partly physical performance, and Fassbender kills with snakelike body movements, as well as dry line readings, as when he, ostensibly to make things less awkward for his bandmates, starts narrating his facial expressions. Long as “Frank” thinks to keep him a charismatic — but still self-effacing — mystery, all’s well.