Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

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MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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The first thing to know about Frank is that he never goes anywhere without his big fiberglass head. As his friend Don says, “you’re just going to have to go with this.”

But the most surprising thing about Frank is that he’s based on a real person, Chris Sievey, a friend and band-mate of author and screenwriter Jon Ronson ( The Men Who Stare at Goats). Don’t look too closely, though; Frank is a fictionalized account, rather than a biography, and the movie is much more satisfying for the dramatic turns it’s allowed to take.

I’m With the Band

Avant-garde Soronprfbs take the stage
Avant-garde Soronprfbs take the stage

In a well acted and edited opening scene, Welshman Jon Burroughs (Domnhall Gleeson — yes, Brendan Gleeson’s son) is revealed as an aspiring, natural, and not very good musician. Everything he sees in his daily life is fodder for a song. “Children playin’ on the beach,” and “Lady in the red coat, what you doin’ with that bag?”

Jon gets his break in a surreal sort of way: he witnesses a man trying to drown himself in the surf; among the onlookers is a man in a fedora, beard, and wool coat who says the drowner was their keyboard player. ” I play keyboards,” Jon offers in front of the ambulance.

Jon is invited to play that night after giving the correct answer to “Can you play C, F, and G?”. The band is called Soronprfbs, and when the lead singer walks on stage, it’s Frank, wearing his giant fiberglass head. Jon rolls with it, playing C mostly. Before long their chaotic soundscape devolves into an on-stage meltdown. But at least Jon got his big break, and he’s invited to join the band for their next gig the next day.

Turns out the gig is across the channel in Ireland, and it’s a long-term album-recording retreat. Jon only packed for one day.

Head Case

If Jon is the audience’s way in to the world of Frank, Don (Scoot McNairy) is Jon’s way in to the band. On the ferry to Ireland Don tells Jon that the big weird head never comes off. He downplays the mental-health issues raised by the head. As if to illustrate how common mental problems are, he confesses he used to fuck mannequins. “It’s a condition!” he says defensively when Jon doesn’t react.

The words are a bit wacky, and so is that head, but that scene helps set the tone of the film. It starts out seeming funny, but turns out to be also serious and sad. It’s not that Frank changes course; rather, as we get past the shock of the strangeness, the less funny it gets. Frank illustrates that the absurd isn’t always and only amusing.

Jon assumes the rest of the band are also mentally ill. Individually they revere Frank’s genius and take their avant-garde music very seriously. Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) plays theremin. Bass player Baraque (Francois Civil) only speaks French and drummer Nana (Carla Azar) doesn’t seem to speak at all. Collectively, they form a protective boundary around Frank, who is thus freed to express his creativity, safe from the judgment of the outside world.

Jon is only tolerated because Frank “saw something cherishable” in him. When Jon is finally allowed to speak to Frank, they get along just fine. Frank answers the inevitable question about the head with surprising clarity — flipping the notion of “strange” to how weird biological faces are. “... And don’t get me started on lips!” Frank offers to describe his facial expessions to Jon, if that would help. “Flattered grin.”

As for Jon, he’s just happy to be a part of this amazing band.

Hey Hey We’re Soronprfbs

The music the Soronprfbs make (mostly written by Stephen Rennicks) is one of the most convincing aspects to Frank. Comedians who don’t understand art might just weird it up and wait for the laughs. But it’s much harder to be weird, and also earnest about it. Music is about feeling, not about polish. When beginning work on their album, Frank makes them start by recording the natural world in their new surroundings. He comes up with a new circular notation system using color and symbols and demands physical workouts from the band before the first click track is laid down.

Jon was always a social media user, tweeting banalities about his life. He continues to do so as the band lays the groundwork for their album. Gradually, Jon attracts followers and manages to get the band invited to South by Southwest, even as Soronprfbs finish their album. The idea of fame and popularity seems to scare everyone in the band. It raises the already abrasive tension between Jon and Clara. Another band member commits suicide. Even Frank seems fazed by it, though he tries to keep his game face on.

Their troubles aren’t over, but you probably don’t need to know any more details before you go see Frank.

No Superman

Three of the film’s most powerful scenes happen at the end of the film. In a diner, Jon learns what effect Soronprfbs have had on their fans, and it’s not at all what he thought. You can see the year of effort he’d put into the band dissolve into nothing under the deluge of well-intended praise from a fan.

Frank disappears so Jon seeks him out at the house of his parents (Moira Brooker and Paul Butterworth). There, he learns that not every freakish superhero has an origin story. Mental illness isn’t always caused; often it just happens. And by the way, suffering doesn’t necessarily enhance art.

The film’s last scene finally shows us Michael Fassbender, without his protective head, all the more vulnerable for its absence. After Fassbender’s 2012 and 2013 films I started thinking that he wasn’t a very interesting actor; that he was good at choosing roles, but didn’t really bring much to them. The last scenes of Frank, full of pain and effort, make me appreciate his talent anew. Yes, Jon was necessarily the main character, but Frank is called “Frank” for a reason.