Being Frank About Frank
Frank is a comedy concerned mostly by the nature of artists, rather than that of art itself. It’s a film which explores how we culturally perceive artists, and questions the beliefs that surround what exactly makes creative people tick. I suppose also that the film is at least a little bit about art, and a little bit about how ‘serious art’ (and serious artists) can be slotted into the current cultural zeitgeist that is social media. The conclusion the film seems to reach about said slotting? That it’s one which doesn’t happen easily.
The film opens on Jon, our everyman protagonist, walking down the street on a search for something to inspire all the songs he believes he could write, but never has. He sings simple melodies in his head about the LADY IN THE RED COAT and the LADY IN THE BLUE COAT, or THE KIDS PLAYING ON THE SAND, but none of it comes across as anything close to either inspired or inspiring.
But then, after stumbling upon the Soronprfbs’s keyboardist attempting to drown himself in the river, Jon comes to play for the avant-garde band in a small bar where no one in the audience seems interested at all in the music being played. It’s here that we are introduced to the titular Frank, Fassbender’s character with an affinity for wearing a papier-mâché head at all times. All times. See, unlike what is (assumedly) the case for his real-life contemporaries such as Deadmau5 or the members of Daft Punk, Frank’s head is not just part of his performance; it’s the symptom of an illness.
In fact, just about everyone in the band seems somewhat mentally ill or unstable. One member indulges sexually with mannequins, a kink that sets up a few wonderful visual and musical punchlines later on in the film. On the less-humorous side of the cast, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Clara is coldly controlling in a manner that could be labelled only as single-minded and obsessive. Alongside this main cast, other ensemble members are black-wearing archetypal portraits of the kinds of people that we would believe naturally belong in a fringe-music band with such an obscure and literally unpronounceable name.
Usually, these few single-dimensional characters would be fine in a band movie like this, but Frank somehow feels a lot of the time like it’s missing something. True, when there is character development, it’s brilliant, and understated, and the film is one of the best comedies I’ve seen in terms of not shoving its characters’ evolutions in the audience’s face as though we cannot figure anything out ourselves. The character and plot development even manages to often be subversive and surprising—Abrahamson and his writing team seem to trust their audience, which is a breath of fresh air in amid the feel-good slosh that makes up much of the band-comedy genre.
But despite all the film's brilliance, there is for sure something missing. And what’s absent from Frank I cannot exactly place, and this leaves me feeling tug within myself that says the film needed more. The glimpses and montages of the band’s music we get are awesome, awe-inspiring, intriguing, incredibly brief. I longed for more of their sound, anticipated each time they picked up their instruments throughout the film, and spent about thirty minutes online searching for the film’s OST, to no avail. It’s a shame, because even if the avant-garde nature of the music was really just a novelty and symbolic of something greater, the film didn’t quite give me enough of it to convince me that there was a whole album there, and the band occasionally became something less than a band; it became a novelty device that existed only to drive the plot and the characters.
Looking at the gears turning within the band, I wanted to experience more of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Clara. Her character was fascinating, and escaped being a mere archetype like many other members of the band. While her plot and motivations are somewhat of a cliche, they worked within the film’s context, and in general she tends to be a crucial, misunderstood character (remembering that we view many of the film’s events from Jon’s skewed perspective). So she definitely works, but I do wish that she’d been given more space in which to do that working—because Gyllenhaal really does give us a great performance.
Of course, the performance which stands out most is Fassbender’s. Given the mask he wears, it’s a vocal performance, primarily, with some subtle and brilliant physical flourishes that work to elevate the actor to some greater level. But perhaps what makes Frank’s Frank incandescent is not just what the character is, but what he represents. He represents exactly what this film is primarily about: the idealised version of the modern artist. On top of this, the film also explores social media, and our perceptions of others. It makes sense, then, that this film be one that challenges our perceptions of said artists, and questions society’s romanticisation of the mentally ill as creatives.
This is an aspect of the film demonstrated primarily through our narrator, Jon. In amid working to grow the band’s social media following, Jon bemoans not having had the memories of his own broken childhood, or of a psychiatric hospital to inspire him. He bemoans not being able to draw from any fundamental brokenness or pain. He believes that Frank and the band’s inspiration is found in their sicknesses, in their alternate and unhealthy thoughts, in their individual darknesses. Not looking to discuss the conclusions the film comes to, each of these issues are discussed masterfully, without the director ever having to say to his audience: “This right here. This is the point.”
So while I walked out of the theatre feeling like I wanted to see and hear more of Frank’s content, perhaps that would have been gratuitous. Perhaps the writers understood that they’d written enough to say what they had wanted to say—and this sense of a congruent statement is something which I do believe the film achieves. In fact, as far as comedies within this niche go, Frank is great. The film touches on some interesting issues, and does so subversively through mature and nuanced writing, ending on such a powerful emotional note that I can’t not feel that the film really did achieve something, even though I can’t help thinking that Frank was, like the band Soronprfbs itself, always just a couple of steps from greatness.