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.