When I read album reviews on sites like Pitchfork or NME, I often find myself getting frustrated (and I meant often) when the critic reviews an artist’s persona instead of the talent exhibited on his or her recorded output. (An example I just made up: “This music is unlistenable and pretentious, but they recorded the album in a little girl’s treehouse, and that’s pretty cool. BEST NEW MUSIC.”) Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed the new dark comedy “Frank,” which concerns a (somewhat terrible) band with an off-putting name (don’t even bother pronouncing the Soronprfbs) that becomes a viral hit due to the eccentricities of its frontman. If you missed the film while it was playing at the Magic Lantern, it’s now available on demand and as a digital rental through iTunes, and I think it’s worth a watch. A transcript of my review, which was broadcast on Spokane Public Radio last weekend, is below:
In 1983, a handsome blonde man from Alberta, Canada, walked into an L.A. recording studio looking to lay down some tracks. He simply called himself Lewis, and he came armed with a handful of aching, melancholy songs that sounded like fuzzy transmissions from another planet. His recordings were compiled on an album titled “L’Amour,” and as soon as it was released, Lewis seemingly vanished. After the album was discovered at a Canadian flea market in 2008, it became a minor internet sensation, and an exhaustive search for this strange crooner, whose lilting vocals are faraway and often mumbled, arrived at one dead end after another.
It was a terrific story, one that music journalists rightly salivated over. Who was this man, where did he cultivate his unusual style and, assuming he was still alive, did he know people were looking for him? A second Lewis album was uncovered shortly after “L’Amour” was reissued on CD, and the man himself was tracked down just last month – his real name is Randall Wulff, and he’s living quietly in Canada with no interest in the royalties his music has accrued. It ended up being an anticlimactic finish to a tantalizing mystery, and yet it still lends Lewis’ songs an eerie, unshakable aura.
I bring this up because I thought about Lewis all the way through the new Irish comedy “Frank,” which gets its name from a mysterious musician who always wears a bulbous papier-mâché head with a painted-on expression that could be perceived (depending on how you look at it) as welcoming, inquisitive or perpetually surprised. Frank is the eccentric frontman of an unknown experimental rock band with a deliberately unpronounceable name, and his style exists somewhere between Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. None of his bandmates have seen the face beneath the mask. They know nothing of his background. His fake head has become an appendage they regard as fact rather than affectation.
The very notion of a guy living inside a papier-mâché cocoon seems dubious, but Frank turns out to be inspired by a cult musician named Frank Sidebottom, a satirical creation of the late British comedian Chris Sievey. Michael Fassbender plays the film’s version of Frank – or at least we assume it’s Michael Fassbender under that head – and he’s magnetic, unsettling and yet strangely soothing, and we eventually come to accept the sight of his goofy, googly-eyed façade. Perhaps we succumb to the same form of Stockholm syndrome as his band. Fassbender is one of our best actors, and he brings a serious intensity to a role that could have easily devolved into a cheap gimmick.
Our entry point into the strange world of Frank and his band is an unremarkable corporate drone named Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson), who is constantly writing pop hooks in his head based on the mundane things he sees while walking down the street. Jon has a chance encounter with Frank’s band after their keyboard player hurls himself into the ocean, and he offers to step up and perform at their gig that night. Before he knows it, he’s the newest member of the band – which also features erratic manager and songwriter Scoot McNairy and glowering Theremin player Maggie Gyllenhaal – and follows them to a secluded country cabin where they plan to record their first album.
For most of its running time, “Frank” is a rigorously conventional comedy about a deeply unconventional group of people, and sometimes it’s aggressive in its attempts to make us laugh at how weird these wannabe outsider artists are. But the film’s third act transforms into a sly, stinging commentary about the indie music scene, as Frank and company make their way to the South by Southwest music festival and discover a shortsighted culture in which context is valued over content. Frank, like the enigmatic Lewis before him, becomes famous not because of his craft but because of his anonymity, and there’s something quietly tragic about a guy being marginalized as a novelty when he’s trying to be taken seriously.
This is not a great movie, and there are some stretches that are almost violently quirky – it doesn’t help, either, that the score often relies on sitcommy musical cues. But its heart is in the right place – we really come to care about this initially repellent band of misfits – and its very last scene, in which a song we’ve heard several times takes on a new and heartbreaking context, is surprisingly effective. Like its namesake, “Frank” is weirdly charming, occasionally off-putting and probably best when taken in small doses.