“What goes on inside that head…inside that head?” That’s the goofily obvious yet loaded question that aspiring musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) asks himself about Frank (Michael Fassbender), the masked frontman of an actively under-the-radar band called Soronprfbs. Like the film itself, the group’s unpronounceable name is as knowingly pretentious as Frank’s papier-mâché helmet, which he never removes, and which helps his arty bandmates view him as a prophetic, angel-headed hipster. In a run-away-with-the-circus development that makes Frank a sort of surrealist Almost Famous, the practically talentless Jon joins Soronprfbs when their keyboardist falls ill, and it’s almost immediately evident that his role will be to free Frank of his Humpty Dumpty complex, inciting a falling down and the breaking of that single-expression crown.
And yet, every shopworn metaphor that branches off this transformative arc, from a man coming out of his shell to the great weight that rests on the shoulders of the hyper-artistic, has more thematic heft than meets the eye. Frank is a film of lingering virtues hidden in plain sight, like Maggie Gyllenhaal, who, as Clara, a sidelined, yet looming, theremin player prone to intermittent outbursts, has never had such an alternately passive and palpable screen presence. Clara is the most resistant to Jon’s inclusion in the group, in part because she sees it as a threat to her love for Frank and Soroprbs’s stability, but also because she and Jon respectively represent the age-old creative struggle of art versus commerce.
Like the characters from Begin Again, Jon and his new associates set out to record an album in the wild, with the tireless streets of New York swapped out for the sleepy Irish countryside. As evidenced by his incessant social-media archiving, which he fires off to the Cloud from Soroprbs’s secluded log-cabin headquarters, Jon is desperate to make it big, and sees his kooky, artist-in-residence experience as his meal ticket. (Indeed, as Jon documents the band’s Wes Anderson-meets-Marcel Duchamp antics, we see his Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube followers grow via on-screen graphics.) But Clara has no intention of selling out (or selling anything), and as Jon fights against this, eventually cajoling Soroprbs into performing at South by Southwest (much to Frank’s excitement and terror), the film boldly raises the unanswerable question of whether it’s better for an artist to safely isolate his work or tweak it a bit so as to share it with the world.
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, Frank is largely a reimagining of events experienced by co-writer Jon Ronson, the former bandmate of singer and comedian Chris Sievey, whose helmet-wearing alter ego, Frank Sidebottom, was a direct inspiration for the title character. Into his pseudo-autobiographical narrative, Ronson also weaves bits of other experimental musicians like Daniel Johnston and Captain Beefheart, resulting in a patchwork valentine to rock on the fringes. Frank is the ultra-stealth, anti-Begin Again. Whereas the latter mocked commercial formula while hypocritically sticking to one, this movie upends seemingly traditional elements to explore them through an oblique lens. It is itself a bit of a disarming, resurrected Humpty Dumpty—an oddly endearing collection of disparate pieces put back together again as an abstract artwork.