Everyone who participates in creativity knows the brief spark of fury ignited by somebody else suggesting ‘slightly’ changing how you do things, in order to get ‘big’. It’s not an entirely irrational evolutionary self-defence mechanism, a flinch in preparation for an assault on your very sense of self – because by ‘big’ they mean profitable, and by ‘slightly’ they mean irrevocably. But at the heart of any creation is a communication of the creator’s world-view – and through modifying it for the sake of profit, we often run the risk of silencing that communication; of murdering that world-view and destroying the creator’s connection to the world in the process. That terrible possibility is what really makes director Lenny Abrahamson’s pitch-black psycho-satire Frank the most compelling viewing the year 2014 has (or, I’d venture, ever will) offer up.
The film follows the adventures of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) as he plunges headfirst into the chaotic world of Soronprfbs (whose name even they don’t know how to pronounce) – and the band’s enigmatic front-man, Frank (Michael Fassbender). Frank has a wonderful way of perceiving even the most mundane aspects of the world, despite his vision being considerably impaired by the Frank Sidebottom mask he wears at all times. He articulates it with a strangely poetic style in his musical environment – which Jon ascribes to a troubled past he assumes Frank has, and envies him for. Jon himself is an alleged musician, a wannabe Ed Sheeran or Frank Turner, who blames his vacuous, rambling lyrics and aimless, plonking melodies on his tame middle-class upbringing. But when he is drafted in to replace the Soronprfbs’ recently sectioned keyboard player, he spots an opportunity. To play and live with this group of evidently unstable, damaged individuals (several have backgrounds in psychiatric hospitals) he somewhat chillingly thinks aloud that this could be the “abusive childhood” to give his music authenticity, and propel him to stardom.
Upon his arrival at the remote cabin in Ireland where the band plan to record their album, Jon begins blogging, tweeting and YouTubing every minute detail of their unconventional creative process – the feakshow-like results of which are greedily gobbled up by the global internet community. However, for some bizarre reason, the other Soronprfbs seem determined to foil Jon’s seemingly reasonable plans to transform them into a global sensation – to make them into his vision of success. But after some manikin molestation, brutal anger-sex and the suicide of the manager (the strangely lovable Scoot McNairy), Jon somehow drags the band to America, and the South by Southwest festival.
On the group’s arrival, Frank realises they are not “known and loved” here, and amidst the ensuing panic, Jon gets his window of opportunity to make the band more ‘likeable’ – completely changing their sound in the process. This leads to aggressive Theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal, who along with the rest of the cast, really played her instrument) stabbing Jon in the leg – and to the near disintegration of the band – but more than that it leaves us sitting on the brink of despair with Jon. All the way through this misadventure we are on his side, heads in hands, wanting to ring the necks of the talented yet obtuse individuals before us, who refuse to adapt to reach a mass audience. And then it happens – a hideous moment of realisation, bringing with it that sensation in the bottom of your gut that comes with a sudden drop.
“He is sick.” “Frank?” “No, you.” Carla Azar’s character bluntly delivers the defining line of the film in a beautifully blink-and-you’ll-miss-the-point kind of a way. Frank, and a host of the band members are mentally ill certainly, but Jon, and by proxy, the audience are the truly sick ones in this equation. Outside of the musical universe they create, we see how the band, particularly Frank, struggle to make sense of the world. This is thematically illustrated perfectly by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan’s screenplay, which tonally shifts from sharp, witty and warm, to dark, rough and bitter as the band are removed from their comfort zone, whilst Stephen Rennicks’ once in a life time score shifts from jaunty and quaint in the early days of Jon’s middle-class escapism to the sullen, moody timbre that greet Jon’s realisation that he has been treating human life as a commodity. Music is the band’s means of structuring their perceptions and communicating them – to the extent it is not just music, but their connection to reality; it istheir very essence. Because music is so structurally integral to their lives then, Soronprfb produce a wondrous, ethereal sound. It’s not remotely marketable, but so what? It’s not about money or popularity – and not in a fraudulent Jessie J-style anti-materialism either. Soronprfb’s music is materially vital to their lives; yet Jon spends the duration of the film trying to commodify this sound, destroying it in the process – all while we cheer him on!
We unwittingly hunger for the dismembering of a whole world we had no right to – the murder of a musical persona for the sake of profit – because we too are sick. Like Jon, we have lived our whole lives within an economic system where survival is based upon either selling labour or exploiting it. That experience has moulded each of our psyches, changed us, to the extent we often cannot imagine this lifestyle as anything other than natural. And that’s why when we encounter something amazing, our first reaction is not to try and understand it for what it is, but bend it out of shape in order to slap a price-tag on it – without second thought for those we displace in the process. The illness has such a hold that some of us even call for the privatisation of services we ourselves rely on, like the National Health Service. The genius of Frank is to take that hideous vampirism that has taken root in our souls, drag it out into the daylight, and allow us to be repulsed at ourselves for ever buying into it.
We are all sick – but thanks to films like Frank, we can learn to understand, and to treat ourselves. This is a smart, engaging and undeniably funny film, with bitter themes to challenge you, and an ending just sweet enough to comfort you. I implore you; see it in the cinema whilst it’s still there, and join me in a state of ‘recovery’ as soon as possible.