PLOT: A young, aspiring musician (Domhnall Gleeson) finds himself the keyboardist in an avant-garde punk-rock band of misfits led by a front-man named Frank (Michael Fassbender), who walks around wearing a giant head-mask, never taking it off.
REVIEW: After the first images of Michael Fassbender wearing a Frank Sidebottom mask started to spread over the net, everyone seemed to think Lenny Abrahamson's FRANK would be a Chris Sievey biopic. During the late-eighties/nineties, the late Sievey- who once fronted a punk rock band named The Freshies- used to host television programs while wearing a cartoon mask- exactly like the one shown in this film. While some of Sievey's antics may have inspired the film, for the most part it seems to be unrelated to his life, outside the iconic papier-mâché head that plays such a significant part here.
Rather, FRANK is an especially sharp-witted satire of what the music business has changed into since social media began to play such a big part in dictating a performer's success. To call the music Frank makes with his band Soronprfbs indecipherable is an understatement. The music is almost non-existent. Rather, the band is like a piece of performance art, saved from being pretentious by the fact that the band leader is certifiably insane. However, insanity had always been a marketable commodity, and that's what the film spends a good deal of time exploring.
The protagonist throughout isn't Frank, but rather Gleeson's ambitious keyboarder, who fills in during an impromptu show and finds himself co-opted into the band. Unbeknownst to them, he starts filming their antics, during an endless period recording a new album, uploading videos to YouTube, or posting on Twitter, giving them a following before they've even recorded or released a note. Meanwhile, Maggie Gyllenhaal, who's the theremin player as well as Frank's confidant, pushes the band in the other direction, with her constantly fighting against even the vaguest idea of success, distrusting Gleeson's ambition, and jealous at the prospect of having to share Frank with anyone else.
In the titular role, Michael Fassbender is terrific, despite the fact that his head is always obscured (sorry ladies). Frank is like a more innocent, musical version of Tyler Durden, leading his not-so-merry band astray with his ambitious art, which is so taxing that his keyboardists have the tendency to commit suicide. For half of the film, Fassbender plays Frank like some-kind of know-it-all guru, only to switch gears and become vulnerable as the film changes pace in the second half, where the band finds itself invited to SXSW after the YouTube videos become a viral sensation. Gleeson, as the doe-eyed innocent with an agenda, strikes a nice balance too between wide-eyed innocence and ambition. Scoot McNairy- of MONSTERS, ARGO and KILLING THEM SOFTLY, also has a strong part as one of the more devoted members of Frank's entourage, and the band's default manager.
Abrahamson's film is hard to classify. It's darkly funny, but at the same time it's peppered with a surprising amount of drama, especially in the last act, where the question of Frank's sanity becomes central. It also tries to say something about the current state of the music business, where bands can become sensations without ever having to prove themselves, just because they're gimmicky. At a relatively brisk ninety minutes, Abrahamson's film covers a lot of territory without feeling rushed or abrupt.
FRANK is probably too bizarre to ever really connect with a mainstream audience, but it definitely has a lot of cult potential, and should get a lot of buzz off its run at Sundance. Indie music fans, and devotees of weird cinema should be quick to embrace it. It manages to be both a clever satire, and unexpectedly moving towards the end. It's probably a love it or hate it type of film, but I fully expect all the cool kids to be wearing Frank Sidebottom masks by Halloween presuming Magnolia (which acquired it) puts it out by then.