Cult Head: Frank

08/13/2014 4:00 AM |

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson

Frank, a high-energy riff on the nature of artistic inspiration, offers a novel spin on the rock-and-roll head case. The title character, played by an American-accented Michael Fassbender, is the frontman of a virtually unknown noise-pop outfit called Soronprfbs; he is an unsung musical genius, he is ever-game to roughhouse, and, most peculiarly, he never lets anyone see his face, concealed as it is at all times under a cartoon-elliptical papier-mâché head with painted-on features. During a tour stop in one of Britain’s sleepy coastal cities, living-at-home aspiring songwriter Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) finds himself onstage as a last-minute fill-in on keyboards, and in short order holes up with the band in Ireland, where they plan to record their next album.

Despite the other members’ combustible personalities and considerable eccentricities, they remain fiercely dedicated to Frank and his vision (Maggie Gyllenhaal and Scoot McNairy play his closest sidekicks). The singer is a cult figure with no cult save for his own backing band, and director Lenny Abrahamson briskly shows them go along with Frank’s off-the-wall songwriting method, a perfectionist process in which mumbled phrases and miniature field recordings eventually find themselves roiling within the same synth squall. Fassbender is an inspired choice for this title part; with just his voice and his posture he manages to convey a loopy enthusiasm that might also scan as unaccountable brokenness (the specter of mental illness hangs over the proceedings). Since the audience knows that the film is withholding its most famous face, the concern as to why only deepens.

During the band’s inadvertently lengthy stay in Ireland, much of which eager Jon sponsors with the “nest egg” his grandfather left him, the young man manages to bring his older bandmates a measure of (unasked-for) Internet-age success. Frank is sharpest when its characters are trying to torture the right sound out of their instruments, but it also spends a good bit of time knocking the black hole of social media. On account of Jon’s constant YouTube uploads, Tumblr entries, and tweets (which Abrahamson often displays on-screen), the keyboardist lands the band a gig at South by Southwest, at which point the prospect of fame unsettles their already shaky dynamic.

The Austin festival scenes might have an off-the-mark tie-in feel, but the twitchy Frank is otherwise improbably well modulated. The long-ago genesis of the character of Frank might give some clue as to why this film is able to so quickly transcend its central gimmick. Frank Sidebottom, a Brit singer with a huge fake head, was created by the late musician-comedian Chris Sievey during the prime of punk. The new film, co-written by Peter Straughan and Sievey’s former bandmate (and author in his own right) Jon Ronson, revives the character only to reimagine its backstory significantly. The resulting film is often inspired—an ultimately moving portrait of an artist conflicted about fielding an audience, and an impressively sustained look through the keyhole at how genius works.

Opens August 15