‘Frank’ explores the reality of #livingthedream in a nearly famous band

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There are a lot of “band movies” out there — “Almost Famous,” “This Is Spinal Tap,” “Anvil” — but there is absolutely nothing out there like “Frank.” Michael Fassbender plays Frank, the lead singer of experimental alt-rock band Soronprfbs. Frank is seen as a visionary and musical genius by the rest of the band, which is probably enhanced by his eccentric habit of perpetually wearing a huge, paper-mache head, like comedian Chris Sievey did as Frank Sidebottom years before.

It says a lot that Frank’s head was modeled on part of a comedian’s act: “Frank” is a comedy. But there’s something unsettling about someone always wearing a bulbous, completely smooth false head. Frank wears it in the shower and forgoes eating. Instead, “he sucks liquid food through a straw that he funnels up under the neckline. Occasionally solids, but it’s not encouraged,” according to Don (Scoot McNairy), Soronprfbs’s manager. He even plugs his head into an amplifier cord rather than using a microphone on stage. It is this intersection of funny and unsettling that the film really lives in.

“Frank” begins with Jon (played by last year’s “About Time” star Domhnall Gleeson), a young man who desperately wants to be a musician but finds himself only composing utter crap. Still living with his parents and plugging away at his dead-end job, Jon often uses social media to present his life, but things aren’t always as exciting as they look on Twitter.

“Cheese and ham panini #livingthedream,” he tweets at one point as he sits on a bench on his dreary lunch break, sirens wailing past in a small, gray town.

He follows the sirens down to the beach, where two paramedics attempt to coax a man trying to drown himself in the shallows of the freezing sea out of the water. It turns out that he’s the keyboardist for Soronprfbs, and Don invites Jon to play with them on stage that night in place of the keyboardist. When Don calls him the next day to ask him to go to Ireland with Soronprfbs, Jon jumps at the chance.

Thinking it’s a big gig, Jon tells work he’ll be back Monday. He soon finds that he might be gone for a little longer than a weekend: The band has rented a house in rural Ireland and won’t leave until they’ve finished recording an entire album. It’s no mean feat, considering the drummer (Carla Azar) doesn’t speak until more than an hour into the film, another band mate (Francois Civil) only speaks French and Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) delights in playing theremin and hating Jon.

To get around the fact that no one can ever see his face — in fact, no one in the band has ever seen his face — Frank occasionally narrates his facial expressions when needed, throwing out a “bashful half-smile” or “delighted look.” “Frank” is hilarious at times, and it features what is without a doubt the least sexy hot-tub sex scene of all time, but as it goes on, it grows darker. A film about self-expression must deal with both the expression (in this case, the music) and the self being expressed. With Frank, it’s particularly hard to separate the two. Never taking the head off, he loses the ability to express himself physically, so musically expressing himself is that much more intense — it’s his only real outlet.

Musicians are often stereotyped as walking the fine line between “creative” and “crazy,” and “Frank” explores that distinction well, without the glamour the media often attributes to it. It delves into the age-old idea of pain being necessary to art: Do artists need to have unhappy childhoods or stays in mental institutions, for example, to make inspiring art, or is inspiring art unrelated to pain? It’s nice to see a film about a band where the end goal isn’t necessarily always “making it”: It’s more about making themselves and seeing how they can exist in the world, rather than being internationally famous across it.

“Frank” opens Aug. 22 at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.


Contact Tyler Allen at [email protected].