Since premiering at Sundance earlier this year, Lenny Abrahamson’s new film Frank has become one of the most talked about films of the festival circuit, lighting up cinemas with its iconic papier-mâché head from SXSW all the way to Sydney Film Festival, where it had its Australian premiere this weekend; the place where Abrahamson’s What Richard Did also found success amongst the event’s calendar last year.
The film follows the trials and tribulations of a wannabe songwriter in Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) as he falls in with a group of eccentric musicians led by a man who wears a colourful fake head – Frank, the film’s namesake, played with surprising conviction by Michael Fassbender and inspired by the late Chris Sievey’s character Frank Sidebottom. Literally thrown into the middle of nowhere in Ireland, Jon finds himself working with the band on their new record as their keyboardist. Though it’s clear he wants more than that. The music the band plays is, as Frank puts it at one point of the film, generally hated by those who see it. And most of them like it that way. Jon, unable to find any real songwriting abilities of his own, finds himself at odds – particularly with the creatively temperamental Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) – as he tries to convince the band to become more commercial, embrace social media and play the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas (where the film would later suitably screen).
The film is a dark comedy in the truest sense of the genre. There is literally a macabre Frenchman thrown into the band, with themes of mental illness, suicide and physical violence littered throughout. All the meanwhile, that bizarre papier-mâché head and Fassbender’s general sensibility keep you enthralled with bizarre, hilarious scenes. And it is funny – at times, very funny. Especially if you’ve ever spent time with a creative type undeterred by any sense of commercial desire. Though exaggerated, almost comic-like (I point to something like American Splendour), there is a lot of reality stemmed in each of the characters in this film. And it’s because of this that the film works.
For myself, a fan of music and someone who has spent a lot of time with bands over the years, the part of the film that sees the band make a record (one that may have actually been quite good) and then head to South by Southwest is almost too perfect, too relatable. What comes after this, however, doesn’t sit quite as comfortably. It’s almost like the director and the co-writers (one of whom was in Sidebottom’s band) wanted to make sure his own film didn’t go down a commercial route, reflecting the band’s own desires.
Without giving everything away, the film’s final act sees everything stripped away, and in doing so, really makes you give up on the characters. Things that were at one point rather comical, become nasty and distasteful. The characters, especially Jon, become almost hateful – and at the very least he had seemingly good intentions before that point. As you leave the film, and think more about it, you understand why the film when down that route – and should I be writing a more philosophical piece I could certainly bore you with the whole “break you down to build you back up” analogy – but it sort of becomes irrelevant. It keeps the film from being something that people leave the film excited about. I wasn’t looking for a Hollywood ending, but I was certainly hoping to leave the cinema with a smile on my face, which was there for the rest of the film.
But for that rest of the film, this is most definitely a journey worth embarking on. Any music fan will appreciate the subtleties of the quirky characters and their epic quest to create something they consider “perfect”. And accompanying this is an enjoyable soundtrack – I should also point out that the actors did perform the music you hear in the film live, which you’ll appreciate as you watch it. Cinephiles, meanwhile, will appreciate the superb cast, the excellent cinematography (taking us from the green mountains and rivers of Ireland to the deserts of Texas) and an intelligent script. And as Michael Fassbender sings us through the credits after a moving final scene, there’s an underlying sense of satisfaction about the whole experience. It may not be the ending we may have expected, it was the one we probably deserved.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Frank screened as part of the Sydney Film Festival. Madman is releasing the film on June 19th in limited release.