DIRECTED BY Lenny Abrahamson
STARS Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender
The band's name is Soronprfbs, and it might be the most unpronounceable moniker since Mr. Mxyzptlk first hit the scene to vex Superman on the DC Comics landscape. Its frontman is Frank, who's declared a genius by everyone around him in spite of — or should that be because of? — the fact that he wears a giant papier mâché head which he never removes. And its newest member is Jon, a singularly untalented individual whose presence comes to feel like that isolated witches burr that has strategically placed itself underneath an occupied sleeping bag.
The movie is Frank, named after its most intriguing character. Played by Michael Fassbender, he's patterned after Frank Sidebottom, the personage created by the late British comedian Chris Sievey. Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), meanwhile, might as well be a modern-day incarnation of Salieri, the mediocre court composer who lived in the shadow of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (at least in 1984's Oscar-winning Amadeus). But whereas Salieri was jealous and resentful, Jon seeks only to help Frank take his music to the masses — a task only slightly more achievable than cramming that proverbial camel through the needle's eye.
Jon, who fancies himself a songwriter (among his discarded attempts: "Lady in the red coat, what have you got in that bag? Lady in the blue coat, do you know the lady in the red coat?"), first meets the members of Soronprfbs when they pop up in his Irish burg and immediately lose their keyboardist to a bout of madness. "I play the keyboard," Jon tells the group's manager Don (Scoot McNairy), and just like that, he's with the band. Don's friendly enough toward him (although Jon balks when Don informs him that he did a stint in a mental hospital because he liked to "fuck mannequins"), but the others — a snarling experimental musician named Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and French rockers Baraque (François Civil) and Nana (Carla Azar) — clearly don't like him. As for Frank, he doesn't speak to Jon at first, but once he does, he finds much to appreciate. For his part, Jon feels that Soronprfbs can make it big, and he does everything he can to bring exposure to the band, from keeping busy with Twitter and YouTube posts to booking them at Austin's South By Southwest Festival.
Frank is a film of questions, not answers. Is Frank really a genius or just a guy with serious mental issues? Does madness aid in the creation of art, as people are romantically inclined to believe, or is it actually a stifling factor? Can even the most outre of creative expressions be sanitized and commercialized? And should everyone really be given a crack at the big time, or are some artists meant to wallow in anonymity from cradle to grave? Director Lenny Abrahamson and writers Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan don't force any solutions on viewers, allowing everyone to make up their own minds. Certainly, they don't make it easy: Frank might get too loopy and self-indulgent (especially when the radical Clara is at his side), but then he's also capable of a lovely tune like "I Love You All" (the majority of the songs were written by Abrahamson and Stephen Rennicks). The filmmakers also indulge in a thematic symmetry that proves beneficial: Note, for instance, how a suburban stroll late in the picture perfectly matches one at the start.
As Frank, Fassbender must act without his facial expressions, a daunting task for any actor. Yet even donning that gargantuan fake head (which brings to mind not only Sidebottom's but also the Lyndon B. Johnson head worn by artist Wayne White in the 2012 documentary Beauty Is Embarrassing), he carves out a complete characterization, employing his body expressions to expose how this man moves, feels, analyzes. It's a fascinating turn that has already earned numerous raves for the Shame star and 12 Years a Slave Oscar nominee, and if these accolades don't give the actor a big head, nothing will.
(Frank will be screened as part of the Back Alley Film Series on Sept. 18, 7:30 p.m. at Crownpoint Stadium 12, 9630 Monroe Road. Admission is $10. More details at www.backalleyfilmseries.com.)