There’s a central tension within all artists: the need to express something personal and have it heard while staying true to what they have to say. What’s the point of making a statement if no one will see it… but what’s the point of making sure everyone sees you if you’re not saying anything? Popularity and truth aren’t mutually exclusive, but they’re so often incompatible you’d be forgiven for thinking they are.
Frank is about that tension, the need for an artist to howl but also to have that howl heard. It’s also about the strange, ungraspable nature of genius, about the self-sacrifice of collaboration and about a guy who wears a giant fake head twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
The film is based on a number of things, including the character of Frank Sidebottom, played by British musician Chris Sievey. But Frank takes the Sidebottom character as just a jumping off point, and it’s as much about outsider artists like Daniel Johnston and Captain Beefheart as it is the guy with the big fake head. It captures in 95 minutes so many sides of weirdo artists that Frank is able to alternately exhilarate you and bum you out, leaving you eventually with a strong hope for the future of self-expression. Especially the self-expression of weirdos.
Frank is anchored by three stellar performances. Operating for most of the movie underneath a giant fake head Michael Fassbender is mesmerizing; he has so much charisma that you don’t even need to see his face to fall under his spell. He uses every muscle of his body in this performance, supplementing it all with a slightly askew accent. There’s a deep kindness in Fassbender’s Frank Sidebottom, and an even deeper naievety. He is a beautiful soul who is being battled over by two others.
Domhnall Gleeson is Jon Burroughs, a character kinda-sorta based on writer Jon Ronson (the film is kinda-sorta based on Ronson’s experiences playing with Sidebottom). He’s a small town guy who dreams of pop stardom - but who has nothing to say. He knows catchy hooks, but he can’t give them any meaning. Gleeson is phenomenal in a role that morphs from plucky outsider to sort of a piece of shit as he tries to make Frank Sidebottom and his band - Sonorfbs - more commercial. Gleeson's commitment to the part is total, and after watching him here - absolutely a star opposite Fassbender - I truly understood why he was cast in Star Wars Episode VII.
Opposite him is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Clara, a hurricane-force for artistic integrity. Gyllenhall is quietly spectacular, playing Clara with such menace at first that her own morphing - into an undeniably crazy person who truly cares about Frank - is as surprising and nuanced as Jon’s. Gyllenhaal is a fury, absolutely terrifying in her angry scenes - which are most of them. If Jon wants to bring Frank closer to being likeable, Clara is interested in dragging him exactly the opposite direction, making his music as impenetrable and niche as possible. Gyllenhaal makes us like her despite the fury because she so very, very clearly cares, and while Jon is in it for himself and his own fame, Clara wants only to support and channel Frank's genius.
It’s important to note that Frank is quite funny for much of its runtime; the film, directed by Leonard Abrahamson, isn’t taking its subject too seriously. The band retreats to a rustic cottage to spend a year deep in the recording of an album, giving themselves over to all sorts of silly artistic excess in the search for perfect sounds. But Frank makes a lovely point about the silliness - sometimes you have to allow yourself to look stupid to find something profound. The film threatens to teeter over into quirkiness more than once, but Ronson’s script and Abrahamson’s direction are firmly in control of the tone.
That tonal control helps in the last act, as Sidebottom’s genius is juxtaposed with his mental illness. In the end Sidebottom is fully revealed to us, removed from the protection of his big giant head, but it turns out that even raw and wounded he’s still a genius. The film ends on its best song, a wonderful number that we see created step by step, and with Frank headless we understand that it isn’t the illness that defines the artist, it’s the art.