It’s a while before we first meet the titular Frank. He’s the guy with the weird fake head, played by Michael Fassbender and loosely based on comedy musician Frank Sidebottom, on whose zany personality the film hinges. Firstly, however, we’re introduced to Jon (Domhnall Gleeson – soon to be seen in the next Star Wars), a failing songwriter and musician. We watch him go about his dismal life, working in an office and attempting to find inspiration in his dreary surroundings. We witness him excitedly rush home to write down a song idea, before it falls apart and he realises it’s simply a copy of It Must Be Love by Madness that he’d heard earlier. In only a few moments, director Lenny Abrahamson encapsulates the struggling artist; a young man devoid of inspiration yet striving to live his dream.
He’s soon given the opportunity. A chance encounter on a beach leads him to join the band “Soronprfbs” as the keyboard player when they visit his home town for a gig. He quits his job and moves with them to secluded lodgings in Wales where they attempt to write their album, filled with odd electronics and recorded sounds from their environment. Thrilled to be on his way to stardom, Jon logs the band’s progress on blogs and Twitter.
Soronprfbs are fronted by the titular Frank, a strange and enigmatic man who finds inspiration in the smallest of things. His fellow bandmates, including the aggressive Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), are enamoured by Frank’s apparent genius and Jon is soon sucked into their crazy world. This despite never seeing Frank’s face – “How does he brush his teeth?” Jon inquires at one point.
Up to this point the film is based very much on the real events of Jon Ronson, the actual keyboardist in Frank Sidebottom’s band. It’s frequently hilarious with a particularly quirky sense of British humour – least of all the immediate hilarity of a man with a fake cartoon head. We may not understand the progressive, psychedelic music that Frank inspires, or why this unique character is so appealing, yet as a whimsical look at the bonkers creative songwriting process, Frank is full of charm.
In its final act the action moves to the SXSW Festival in Texas, turning fact to fiction. The pressures of performing live soon tear the band apart; their reliance on Frank’s head as a gimmick and Jon’s social media marketing is a clear comment on the music industry and its dependence on image over musicality, as well as a satire on festival audiences eagerly anticipating the next big thing.
It becomes clear that Soronprfbs are not the next big thing. Instead, the film becomes a more psychological tale as we finally meet the man behind the mask – a fragile man scared of reality, tenderly portrayed by Fassbender. Like so many geniuses in history, Frank is the typically tortured artist – is it this that makes him so talented? Is he even a genius at all? Is his work even music? And does the film warrant this serious denouement after so much offbeat humour earlier on?
The mask is a clear metaphor, an image of Frank’s intangibility and ambiguity, and it’s symbolic of the film too. Like the band’s weird music, Frank is difficult to categorise. Instead it’s a bizarre and unique indie experience that may or may not be utter genius.