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Bleak, funny ‘Frank’ strikes chord

Fri., Aug. 29, 2014

From left, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson star in “Frank.”
From left, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson star in “Frank.”

Llewyn Davis, the struggling folk singer at the center of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” had a cat that he didn’t particularly want. Frank, the struggling avant-garde rocker at the heart of the movie bearing his name, has a giant papier-mache head that he can’t live without and wears everywhere. All the time.

Both Llewyn and Frank may embody the spirit of the difficult musician, but Frank – despite, or maybe even because of, that big, fake head – is a more empathetic and engaging character, making “Frank,” the movie, a more bleakly funny yet ultimately touching film.

Frank is told through the eyes of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”), a keyboard player and wannabe songwriter whose dreams are bigger than his talents. But he gets his chance at the stardom he craves after stumbling across a man trying to commit suicide in the ocean. As it turns out, the guy plays keyboards in an underground band with a name, the Soronprfbs, as unpronouncable as a Welsh town. As he’s hustled off to an ambulance, it’s clear the group will need a replacement, and mercurial manager Don (Scoot McNairy, “Halt and Catch Fire”) hires Jon on the spot.

That’s how Jon is sucked into this rabbit hole of easily wounded egos, half-empty gigs, noise masquerading as music, a larger Twitter following, and a slot at South by Southwest.

In addition to Frank (Michael Fassbender), who’s obviously hiding a lot under that heavy mask, there are the other band members to deal with. Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Frank’s caretaker of sorts, never cracks a smile and can’t stand Jon; she sees him for the musical empty suit that he is. Baraque (Francois Civil), who only speaks French, and Nana (Carla Azar) are no more welcoming.

But Frank takes a liking to Jon and begins to lean on his more commercial, banal instincts. It sets up the tension between doubling down on the original vision or selling out – a push-pull that has bedeviled musicians, and artists in general, since forever.

Jon is the audience’s surrogate, but it’s Frank who holds its attention, thanks to a striking performance from Fassbender, who has to generate emotion without using an actor’s most visible asset: his face.

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson and based loosely on the experiences of co-screenwriter Jon Ronson (“The Men Who Stare at Goats”) – who was in a group called Frank Sidebottom Oh Blimey Big Band whose leader, yes, wore a giant head – Frank has the feel of someone who has been there. But Ronson has said that the film is meant to be less autobiographical and more of a tribute to the likes of Sidebottom, legendary musician Captain Beefheart, comedian Andy Kaufman and singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston – personalities whose ambitions conflicted with the mainstream and those around them. Yet it also doesn’t shy away from the fact that Frank has deep issues that go beyond being a misunderstood genius.

The music in “Frank” may sometimes be discordant, but the film itself, at once a send-up of the music biz and a portrait of a troubled man, strikes the right notes.


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