Despite being advertised as a comedy, Frank is a surprisingly difficult pill to swallow. It’s basically a modernised version of Almost Famous, except with its feckless protagonist being an amateur musician as opposed to an amateur music journalist. Domhnall Gleeson plays Jon, the uninspired and uninspiring songwriter who, after a chance encounter, is swept up by an avant-pop band named The Soronprfbs and becomes their keyboardist. However, this division between him and William Miller reveals its facade, as Jon proves more adept at bringing a wider audience to the band than his own contributions. His Billy Crudup-ness is further outlined by the fact that he simply cannot identify with the musicians whatsoever.
The Soronprfbs (nope, the band don’t know how to pronounce it either) are led by the title character (played wonderfully by Michael Fassbender), who dons the already-iconic papier-mâché head as seen above. He’s a regular Captain Beefheart/Scott Walker/Syd Barrett type frontman, who instills the perfectionism of Radiohead into a band that is essentially Deerhoof combined with the magnitude of mid-career Swans. Of these comparisons, however, he is perhaps more closely aligned with Barrett, given the mental illness he endures and threatens to be swallowed by once the Soronprfbs reach a larger audience. In a way, though, he symbolises music as a whole; he’s an enigmatic shape-shifter who is all persona, though not without a completely human undercurrent. He’s abstract, he’s entirely his own thing, but most of all he simply yearns for affection.
Frank is initially viewed through the eyes of Jon, who is at first apprehensive of this masked figure before he begins to idolise him, but the point of view gradually becomes omniscient, distancing itself from the protagonist and into a neutral zone where we’re forced to see things for what they are. The title Frank doesn’t just refer to the name of a character, but also the tone used in exploring his illness, and over the course of the movie our intrigue turns to empathy, the hilarious first half whittling down to a depressing third act. It’s a well-structured emotional arc that patiently and successfully unfurls in great detail.
The movie isn’t really an insight into musicianship (despite the fact that the movie is based on Chris Sievey’s Frank Sidebottom persona) as much as the two sides of the idol/idoliser divide, using social media as a subliminal but crucial character in this exploration. Jon isn’t especially musical in the slightest, and his desire to write songs presumably stems from the hero-worship of his favourite artists. He is an avid Tweeter, however, and successfully builds up the Soronprfbs’ fanbase by documenting practice sessions and uploading them to YouTube. Unfortunately, the fish out of water that he is threatens the very foundations of the band, and especially the wellbeing of its leader who struggles to face the pressure of his surge in popularity, the affection he’s long been waiting for greeting him like a slap to the face. Oh, and if “I Love You All” doesn’t at least get nominated for the Best Original Song Award at the Oscars next year, I’ll honestly freak the fuck out.