As I catch up on movies from the last year that I missed in theaters, it’s increasingly clear that all the laments about 2014 being a bad one for film are total nonsense.
The list of excellent movies, or at least the one I’m working on, keeps growing: leaving aside the quiet awards juggernaut of Boyhood (all deserved), that list already includes the tense revelations of Blue Ruin and Calvary, James Gray’s monumental The Immigrant, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Pynchon-noir Inherent Vice … not to mention Ida, Under The Skin, Wetlands, Obvious Child, Noah, and We Are The Best! Not too shabby, and those are just some of the ones I’ve managed to see so far.
And now add Frank to the list.
Like We Are The Best!, on a surface level Frank focuses on the interpersonal dynamics in a rock band and the liberating power of music. But unlike the irrepressible (and technically unnamed) trio of teen punkers behind my favorite song, “Hate The Sport,” Frank’s unpronounceable art rock band The Soronprfbs has a deeper sadness at its core. So does the movie, and especially its titular character, even though he’s played by Michael Fassbender with an enormous paper-mache head that he famously never takes off. It’s a lightweight and jokey visual theme that takes on deeper resonance, sadness, and even wisdom as the movie plays out.
Our entry point to The Soronprfbs is Jon (Domhnall Gleeson, terrific, and who also stood out in 2014’s exceptional Calvary), a nice, kind of nerdy guy who dreams of writing and performing his keyboard-based songs. They are not very good. He clearly suspects this might be true, but he still plugs away at them, recording in his bedroom and posting his progress to Twitter, like a dork.
By chance, he ends up filling in for the unavailable keyboardist from The Soronprfbs, who are passing through town. (The constantly rotating cast of keyboardists recalls the drummers from Spinal Tap, who can’t seem to catch a break, either.) The show doesn’t go well for other, artier reasons, but Jon’s hooked on performance, and especially intrigued by the enigma of the band’s frontman Frank (Fassbender), who wears that enormous head and shout-sing-croons like a cartoon Nick Cave. As things develop, Jon ends up being recruited to help with their next record, and, like any self-respecting art-rock ensemble, the band retires to a secluded location in the woods to work on their masterpiece.
As with most scenarios where groups of people retire to secluded locations, tensions emerge. Cold and wary multi-instrumentalist Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), also Frank’s primary collaborator, has no time or patience for this know-nothing kid who’s now part of the group, apparently, and she lets this be known in overt and more passive-aggressive ways. The other members of the band don’t particularly care for Jon, either, or his cornball keyboard ballads. True to form, though, Jon forges ahead, befriending Frank and hoping his compositions get some traction in the group.
And in the meantime, Jon blogs about his experience and posts rehearsal and behind-the-scenes videos to YouTube, as their stay in the woods comically continues on long past their own deadline, or rental agreement. (And I should emphasize, Frank really is a comedy and often very funny, despite some of the heaviness. A highlight includes Frank verbally explaining his expressions from behind his unchanging face: “Delighted smile!” he points out. Clara: “Please stop describing your expressions. It’s extremely annoying.”)
In any case, the social media push works, though no one else had been told there was a social media push to speak of. Clara especially is pissed, considering Jon “a spy” and a danger to the band’s outre status. The push and pull between mainstream attention and artistic purity is a theme: Clara hates the whole idea of tens of thousands of YouTube viewers; Frank is clearly surprised and cheered that people are interested. (Well, as clearly surprised and cheered as you can appear with only one expression on your enormous paper face.) An invitation to South By Southwest follows, and the band hits the road.
Things don’t go particularly well there. Frank has a breakdown that reveals the enormous amount of anxiety and trauma he’s been through, and the entire band disintegrates. After some time, Jon tries to track them down, and a pivotal scene finds them all back together briefly … but with Jon left out of the music. His melancholy smile makes clear he knows this was never really his scene, and he’s okay with that.
As a message, that’s still a tough pill to swallow. What happened to joint artistic creation bringing everyone together in an uplifting finale? Once again, the We Are The Best! contrast is apt. For those three girls in Stockholm, the music was not really the point so much as a vehicle to come together and come into their own. But for the older folks in Frank, it’s not so simple anymore: that teenage who-gives-a-shit punk rock enthusiasm runs into roadblocks along the way, and the world has a way of making you face what you realistically can pull off.
As Nathan Rabin perfectly summed up Frank, “Here’s a seemingly twee movie that ultimately, surprisingly argues that some music isn’t for everybody, some people are too broken to fix, and some would-be artists are better off in the audience.” The trick Abrahamson himself pulls off is to capture that bummer sentiment, but let you down gently: it’s not a tragedy, really, if your songs suck. It’s not even really a tragedy if you aren’t ever going to be whole, or exactly who you hoped to be. You are what you do, and the choices you make, and connections you forge. And it’ll probably be alright, even when it’s not.
And since I didn’t do a Song for a Sunday last week, here’s The Soronprfbs performing “I Love You All,” my other favorite song. The nonsense lyrics keep ending up right back at that statement, wonderfully encapsulating both the film’s Dadaist humor and its fundamental empathy: “Washroom, smell, they could be cleaner / Stench of cigarettes, hysteria / I love you all, I love you all.”