Most outsider artists, whether through insecurity or circumstance, wind up hiding their light under a bushel. Eccentric musical genius Frank (Michael Fassbender) prefers to hide his light under a fiberglass cartoon head. He’s the mercurial leader of the noise-rock band Soronprfbs, which also has a drummer (Carla Azar), a bass/guitar player (Francois Civil), and a brusque theremin player (Maggie Gyllenhaal). We learn about these odd ducks from the vantage point of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), an aspiring musician who joins the group as an emergency keyboardist and slowly gains control of the enterprise, steering it toward a more rewarding exploitation of Frank’s creative energies – much to the chagrin of all the non-Frank band members.
Music is a kind of religion, and Frank is the kind of prophet whose actions ride the line between deep, unknowable wisdom and complete insanity. He doesn’t let anyone see him without the head, which gives him the appearance of a character from a lost 1960s anime (think Astro Boy meets Max Fleischer). Frank’s end credits inform us that the film is inspired by Chris Spivey, a fringe rocker who performed for years in a getup nearly identical to the one featured here. Yet the idea seems more savvy than strange in the context of the film – in many ways it’s a sly commentary on the power of a clever gimmick in a crowded entertainment marketplace. Jon’s tweets and YouTube posts are frequently displayed onscreen, along with a tally of his followers – a pathetically small number at first, but one that grows as Soronprfbs gains its own modest notoriety as the band with the cartoon head guy.
But is it really a gimmick? Frank has an answer, but plays coy for a long time. It can be a hard film to pin down. Jon’s early struggles to be accepted by his bandmates (save for Frank, who’s generally a beatific presence) follow a fish-out-of-water tradition that predicates his seeming triumph against the odds when he gets the band booked at Austin’s annual SXSW festival. However, the centre of the film contains a slowly expanding darkness, which director Lenny Abrahamson keeps hidden under a droll sense of humour. As a character, Frank skirts dangerously close to the “holy fool” archetype – the SXSW portion of the movie plays particularly like a rock ‘n roll Rain Man – but Fassbender’s performance makes him seem unique and vital. Even without showing his face, Fassbender captures the essence of a man whose all-seeing mind is still blind to the basic truths of reality.
Abrahamson is essentially telling a parable here. He starts with a collection of impenetrable or foggy ideas and gradually, soothingly demystifies them. Sometimes that means the supporting characters – like the excellent Scoot McNairy as a band manager with a set of quirks to rival Frank’s – turn out to be instructive plot devices. But, for the most part, they’re entertaining plot devices: Gyllenhaal is a hoot doing a curmudgeonly Karen O impression and makes a perfect nemesis for the overreaching Gleeson as they fight over the band’s – and eventually Frank’s – mortal soul. For all its weirdness, Frank is about as sincere as indie films get, funny and heart-breaking in equal measure. It’s also nuanced enough to complicate the obvious themes about the preciousness and purity of art. It’s just a thing we do, however we’re naturally equipped to do it – no accoutrements necessary.