Take a look at this. For those who haven’t seen it, that’s a video of Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Domhnall Gleeson, Carla Azar, and Francois Civil playing on the Colbert Report, live and in character as the band inexplicably (and unpronounceably) called “Soronprfbs.” And yes, that is Fassbender in the giant papier mache mask, singing “Prodigal son waits to return to where the dogs play pull / I love you all.” That’s as good an introduction as any you’re going to get for today’s movie.
Frank begins with Jon Burroughs (Gleeson), an aspiring songwriter with a dead-end day job. His life appears stuck in a rut until he chances to pass by a suicide attempt. Even more improbably, the guy who tried to kill himself was the keyboardist for Soronprfbs, which means that they’re now in need of a replacement. Jon volunteers his services to the band’s manager (Don, played by Scoot McNairy), who immediately agrees with a startling apathy. Soon after, Jon is whisked away to live with the band while they work to record an album in some middle-of-nowhere cabin. From there, the film more or less follows your standard “behind the music” plot as the band makes it big, falls apart, etc.
Any discussion of this film must begin with Frank, the frontman played by Fassbender. More specifically, we have to address that giant mask he always wears. Going into this movie, I was seriously afraid that the mask would be some non sequitur gimmick, merely weird for the sake of being weird. Fortunately, the mask works on a number of symbolic levels. For example, the mystery of what Frank really looks like is analogous to the question of what goes on in the head of some creative genius. The mask also works as a symbol of celebrity status: It’s blatantly artificial, it takes a tremendous amount of dedication to maintain, and no one could know Frank from Adam without it.
Moreover, Frank’s mask has a permanent expression of wide-eyed fascination. That’s a perfect fit for the character’s childlike curiosity with everything around him. Frank has the uncanny ability to make a song out of anything (and I do mean anything), and a huge chunk of the film comes from Frank’s experiments in recording perfectly mundane sounds. The guy has a tremendous amount of creativity fueled by unyielding optimism, which puts him in stark contrast to his bandmates.
Clara, Baraque, and Nana (respectively played by Gyllenhaal, Civil, and Azar) are all aggressively antisocial misfits. They’re the kind of insufferable emo hipsters who hate anything the moment it becomes cool and act like they’re above the “normal” yuppie scum. Naturally, the three of them (Clara most of all) absolutely despise Jon, who suddenly dropped into the band from his middle-class life. And of course they don’t respect him as a musician, even though (from what I could tell), he’s no less talented than they are. The problem — aside from being the new guy, of course — is that Jon wants to make songs that are both popular and artistically relevant. Though his bandmates have a very black-and-white view toward that, believing that anything popular is inherently void of artistic merit.
Basically, Jon wants to make music that reaches out and affects people, Frank wants to make music because nothing else brings him any kind of joy, and the other three want to make music so they can keep on being weird while sticking it to The Man. And they’re both wrong. When the band is being weird purely for the sake of it, they’re just chasing their own tails in a cabin somewhere working on an album that keeps getting rebuilt from scratch. When they play to try and appease an audience, it somehow ruins this unique and special thing they’ve made.
So they all bicker with each other over the direction of the band and their music, and a lot of crucial questions go unasked. So much crap happens because none of the characters stopped to think about what they were doing, why they were doing it, or who they were doing it for. Then again, the movie never seems to ask those questions either.
Don’t get me wrong, the film has some very intriguing moments regarding the creative process, specifically about how nothing we make ever seems good enough for our own high standards and how the weirdest members of the human race are often the most creative. But when it comes to the central question of playing for an audience versus playing for the heck of it, the movie stops just short of making a point. It’s hard for me to elaborate further without getting into spoilers, but I personally thought that the ending very aggressively zigged where zagging would have made a more coherent point.
Ultimately, as best I can figure it, the movie seems to agree with Frank’s stance. If the film has any message, it’s that art should be uplifting for everyone involved. Art will find a loving audience if it comes from a place of sincerity and passion, even if that audience isn’t very big. Moreover, art should be used as a means of bringing people together, not driving everyone else away.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about the music. Needless to say, a lot of it can barely be called as such. If you clicked that link at the start of the review, you’ve already heard the best song that this movie has to offer. There’s also “Lone Standing Tuft,” that was pretty good. The other songs, however, are either half-baked first drafts played on a keyboard or incoherent messes that are the audio equivalent of abstract art.
(Side note: I sincerely hope “I Love You All” gets an Oscar nomination, just to see Michael Fassbender sing onstage at the Dolby Theatre in that mask.)
Frank is kind of endearing for how weird it is. There’s a surprising amount of intelligence here, for a movie that’s all about creativity and art without logic. That said, I must admit that the movie is a touch masturbatory in its praise for people who are weird or offbeat. Even so, the film makes enough compelling statements about the artistic process that I can give it a pass. Of course, the stellar performances from Fassbender and Gleeson help a lot as well. Definitely keep an eye out for it.