Saturday, August 23, 2014

New movie review: Frank

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender, and Domhnall Gleeson star in Frank.

There is a moment toward the end of the great music documentary Westway to the World when the late Joe Strummer is talking about the dissolution of The Clash. His songwriting partner, Mick Jones, had been removed from the band because he had become impossible to work with, and drummer Topper Headon was fired because his drug problems began to interfere with his work.

Strummer and founding member Paul Simonon soldiered on with a new lineup, but the magic clearly was gone. Looking back on that tumultuous time, Strummer has the insight that for whatever problems they had with each other, The Clash were Strummer, Jones, Simonon, and Headon. He says:

Whatever a group is, it was the chemical mixture of those four people that makes a group work. That’s a lesson everyone should learn. Don’t mess with it. If it works, just let it. Do whatever you have to do to bring it forward, but don’t mess with it. And like, we learned that – bitterly.

Frank, the new musical comedy-drama from Irish director Lenny Abrahamson, approaches this chemical mixture from another angle and finds a different kind of misery that results from changing the formula. Instead of taking away from the solution, the band fronted by the titular Frank adds an element that does not belong, and as amateur chemists have learned throughout the ages, the result is an explosion.

Light on plot but brimming with anarchic energy, Frank is at once the story of a brilliant artist composing his masterpiece and a talentless hack frustrated by having nothing to say and no way to express it. Michael Fassbender is the artist, Domhnall Gleeson is the hack, and both are pitch perfect in their portrayal of what happens when these two forces collide.

Gleeson plays Jon, a struggling songwriter who takes the advice to write what you know to its logical conclusion, singing ditties in his head about everyone he passes on the street. His lyrics are uninspired, and his musicianship is lacking, but at a low point, he has a chance encounter with Soronprfbs as the band’s keyboardist tries to drown himself in the sea. Jon is recruited for the group’s gig that night. The performance ends in disaster, but with the keyboardist sent to a mental hospital, Frank (Fassbender) invites Jon to join the recording sessions for the band’s album.

The film’s second act takes place entirely at a cabin in the woods where the Soronprfbs will try to capture their particular brand of lightning in a bottle. In addition to Frank and Jon, the band consists of first keyboardist Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), angry Francophone guitarist Baraque (Francois Civil), and enigmatic drummer Nana (Carla Azar), as well as manager Don (Scoot McNairy).

I have yet to mention what likely will leave viewers with the most lasting impression – that Frank wears a giant cartoon head at all times. He is loosely based on English comedian and musician Christopher Sievey (to whom the film is dedicated), and Frank’s head bears more than a passing resemblance to a similar piece of headgear worn by Sievey’s most famous character, Frank Sidebottom.

The head is a striking image and a deft metaphor, but it does not define Frank. Frank radiates the energy and brightness of the sun, and everyone else orbits around him like planets caught in the gravitational pull of his positivity and openness. Early on, Jon has many questions about the mask and the man behind it. Don tells him just to go with it and that Frank is the sanest man he knows. This may not be strictly true, and more on this is revealed as the film goes on, but it is undeniable that Frank’s luminance casts beautiful light on everything in his presence.

But where there is light, there is dark and there are shadows. Jon is that darkness and the shadows his growing frustration. Once again, Don offers sage advice – there can be only one Frank – but Jon cannot hear him, his ears filled with mediocre songs and his eyes blinded by delusions of his own brilliance. Everyone wants to be a bright and shining star, and more than that, Jon thinks he deserves to be.

He updates his Twitter, his Tumblr, and his YouTube account with stories of the band’s – and thereby, his own – successes. He uses Soronprfbs to feed his outsize ego, to convince himself that belonging to something great makes him great as well. He never stops to question his own irrelevance to the group. After all, how important is the second keyboardist, particularly when the previous man at the post was replaced by a kid off the street?

In his infinite goodness and optimism, Frank cannot see the threat Jon poses, but Clara can. Gyllenhaal is great against type as a woman who has been wounded and relies on the strength she derives from Frank to carry on. She is skeptical of Jon and antagonistic toward him. She knows how the elements combine and can see that Jon is poisoning the mixture.

Gleeson, whom most will recognize as Bill Weasley from the last two Harry Potter movies, captures the combination of naivety and arrogance that drives so many who want to be artists to try every way they can to express themselves. That Jon has nothing valuable to express will not stop him, but what does is that he lacks the creative instinct to know where to start. It is a cruel irony, and Gleeson is expert at portraying Jon’s frustration with his circumstances.

Frank, on the other hand, is the kind of musician who composes masterpieces seemingly at will. When he sings an impromptu song about a tuft of thread sticking up on the back of a chair, mirroring Jon’s own attempts to sing about the world around him, Frank elevates the improvisation to the level of art. And like Salieri watching Mozart, Jon is filled with awe by what he can see and seething with jealousy over what he cannot create.

As most any actor will tell you, the most important tool a performer has is his face. Here, Fassbender replaces that tool with a big, expressionless head, but his performance shines through no less. If Frank is the shining star around which the film revolves, then Fassbender is the engine that keeps Frank spinning. With masterful control over both his voice and physicality, he brings nuance and subtlety to a character who could easily exist as a sight gag.

For ease of conversation, Frank offers to say his facial expressions aloud, and when he says, “Inviting smile,” you see it because Fassbender’s relaxed posture and soft tone already have made you feel it. It is thanks to Fassbender that as the film goes on, we no longer see the head. We see only the fully realized character behind it. Jon cannot get to this point because when he looks at the head, all he wants to see is himself. But Don is right – there can be only one Frank.

See it? Yes.

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