Gimmicks get you gigs, or at least that’s the implied mantra for novelty acts like GWAR and KISS, where garish garnish generates spectacle, buzz, and ticket sales. The same might be said of Soronprfb, the band with the intentionally unpronounceable name in the movie Frank, where the lead singer wears a giant papier-mâché head bearing a blue-eyed boyish countenance. Soronprfb however doesn’t seek fame and fortune; they desire artistic respect and only produce work that reflects their values and integrity.
Just what those values are remains murky, but you can’t deny their commitment to this esoteric tenet. Playing to handfuls in random dives, eschewing promotion (social or otherwise), and lacking cash, might be setbacks and poor decisions to some, but for Soronprfb it’s a badge of honor and a starving artist rallying point. And when the time strikes to record a new album, the group turns-off, drops out, and cloisters away to a quaint lake-side lodge somewhere in the Irish north, where they resign to remain until the necessary inspiration descends and the new disc is pressed from their argumentative malaise.
The most committed and enigmatic of the music-minded set is the titular Frank (Michael Fassbender) who wears the head 24/seven, even when taking a shower. None of his band mates question the shtick. They don’t even give it a second thought; it’s accepted as an extension of the singer’s persona — and the band’s as well. With such weirdness and focus on the post-punk band’s righteous indignation, you’d think it might be hard to keep the plot straight — especially given the maelstrom of whacky aloofness. However, director Leonard Abrahamson, and his writers Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan, do a wise thing and bring in a detached outside eye in the form of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a sheepish fan who winds up in the band when the keyboardist tries to commit suicide. Jon’s a wide-eyed idealist who becomes the central point of conflict as well as an inspirational catalyst and Frank’s confidant, which, as far as the narrative goes, pays great dividends in the film’s later movements.
It’s by the lake (where much of the film unfolds) that we rake through the rich compost of personalities, with Jon being the most straight forward and Frank the epitome of obtuse. Somewhere in between there’s a pissy French guitarist (Francois Civil), the scruffy manager (Scoot McNairy) who’s got personal insight into Frank’s past, and bringing up the sassy rear, the glum theremin player (Maggie Gyllenhaal, doing the goth girl bit) who springs to life whenever anyone gets too close to her instrument or Frank. Gyllenhaal adds great affect when she’s on screen, but unfortunately her talents are underutilized, forced to spend most of her time pouting in the background. She’s only engaged when at odds with Jon or stealing a searing hot tub lovin’ sesh.
If you’re wondering what kind of music Soronprfb plays, post-punk isn’t entirely it. It’s in there for sure, but angry metal and avant-garde would also be correct. When performing, Frank assumes the stage with a strange sorrowfully sexual command that both repels and beguiles. Mix in some Ian Curtis or Jim Morrison with a touch of Trent Reznor and you’re almost there. Two of the aforementioned frontmen’s lives ended early and tragically, and as Frank continually remains withdrawn and nearly other worldy at times, you wonder if he’s not short for this world as well.
For where Fassbender is at in this stage in his career, Frank is a bit of a risk. Recently, he’s made more mainstream films — taking the reins in the X-Men prequels, the droid in Prometheus, and the mercurial plantation owner in Twelve Years a Slave — but the return to his quirky off-center roots that include Shame and Inglorious Basterds could payoff and show that the versatile actor can be both an A-list leading man and indie darling. Either way, Fassbender goes about it with his searing passive-aggressive intensity burning brightly. It’s brave of any performer to hide behind such a forward facing obstruct for so long. As the story has it, the band, a la the Sex Pistols in the ’70s, gets a call to come to America at the SXSW fest, the results of which are predictable.
For those who despise acts like GWAR and find their premise total crap, know this, writer Ronson’s life mirrors much of the band’s own experiences in Frank. Ronson played keyboards — perhaps he sees himself as Jon — in the ‘80s band the Freshies where the lead singer was a lad named Chris Sievey, who later became comedic persona Frank Sidebottom. Just how intoxicating Sidebottom (he died in 2010) and Ronson were compared to Frank and Jon, only Ronson knows. In either case, we’re left with an instance of art imitating art — and perhaps too artistically. The process of art as a process can enthrall, but it also can dim. Frank is a bit of both, but it is one that Fassbender sells convincingly.
Frank will screen at Park Circle Film Society (4820 Jenkins Ave.) on Sat. Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $5 ($2 for Society members).