Throughout the 80s there was a constant buzz about a proposed movie featuring 2000 AD‘s helmeted future lawman Judge Dredd. Fans speculated for years about potential casting. But, as some sage observers pointed out, what self-respecting film star would want to make a film where you can’t even see their face? (they got around this eventually by casting Sylvester Stallone and having him take off the helmet after ten minutes).
Whichever way you look at it, any film in which the main character has his features covered up is making a bold and potentially problematic move. It can only really pay off if the whole film hinges on that fact, and that’s what Frank attempts here: does the title character’s false head conceal or actually reveal his true nature?
The false head is question will look familiar to many, especially as it’s being worn by an eccentric singer-songwriter character called Frank. But as co-writer Jon Ronson has been at pains to explain, this certainly isn’t a Frank Sidebottom biopic. It takes inspiration from Sidebottom and from Ronson’s own time as keyboard player in his band but it plays fast and loose with the facts to create an entirely new fictional character who has as many parallels with a whole range of outsider artist songwriters as he does with the bard of Timperley himself.
The film is told from the perspective of Jon, a young man in a joyless job who, quite by accident, finds himself playing keyboards at a local gig by Soronprfbs, the unpronounceable band led by the enigmatic Frank. Frank never removes his false head and no-one in the band has ever seen his real face. Next thing he knows, Jon is living in a cabin by a lake in Ireland, helping the band to write, rehearse and record their magnum opus new album. This turns out to be a singularly strange and intense experience with severe consequences for all concerned.
In some respects, this directly mirrors Ronson’s own experience with the Oh Blimey Big Band – hence, presumably, the main character being a keyboard player called Jon. But rock history scholars may also detect echoes of Don van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, and his Magic Band, in particular the hothouse creation of their extraordinary album Trout Mask Replica. There’s even an hefty nod in that one key band member is called Don, and in trimmed beard and fedora hat he looks a lot like Beefheart.
There’s a lot of this going on in Frank. It sets about building a composite story from assorted real-life musicians. And yes, there’s much fun to be had here. It’s told with verve, wit and style and it’s never less than entertaining. Ultimately, though, it’s not all that satisfying. As far as the plot goes, it’s all a bit episodic and inconsequential. For instance, once the band finish making the album they’re so obsessed with, it’s never even mentioned again (Is it ever released? Is it even any good?).
Playing Frank, Michael Fassbender does a remarkable job considering he’s acting from under a big false head – at times we’re into Tom-Hardy-as-Bane levels of incomprehensibility – but it does mean his character’s hard to engage with. In fact, they all are. As protagonist Jon, Domhnall Gleeson is curiously flat and blank. Two of his bandmates are French and barely speak at all. There’s really only Maggie Gyllenhaal, as Frank’s sulphurous girlfriend Clara, who emerges as a reasonably rounded character and provides some emotional clout. Overall though, the problem is that once things begin to take a more dramatic turn of events, these aren’t characters that we feel particularly invested in, so any potential impact is lost. It sets out to be something more than just a dotty comedy, something thoughtful and affecting, and while there are funny moments, they’re not so relentless that you don’t notice this curious void at its centre.
There’s a danger, too, that Frank wants to have its cake and eat it. We’re encouraged to find the crazy antics of the band members entertaining and amusing but, as the film goes on, it’s stressed that Frank is actually profoundly mentally ill in the tragic tradition of Syd Barrett and Daniel Johnston. So what exactly have we been laughing at? Done intentionally, this kind of narrative switch-around can be devastating. By way of example, Lars von Trier pulls it off to great effect in The Idiots, suddenly showing the audience precisely what they’ve been guilty of, like sniggering sightseers at Bedlam. Here, though, it’s handled far less adeptly. It’s simply thrown away.
For all the undoubtedly interesting ideas it’s juggling about art, creativity, success, celebrity and mental illness, Frank emerges as a bit of lightweight fun that’s never more than the sum of its parts. Many other films have already ploughed similar territory to better effect. With similar subject matter, the great documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston had all the soulfulness, passion and heartbreak that this falls short of. On a very different tack, last year’s Good Vibrations was a much more striking and original comedy-drama about music industry outsiders.
Strangely, if feels like the key factor holding Frank back is, in fact, that big false head. Because, although it’s absolutely central to the whole film, it becomes what it presumably it was in real life: a gimmick. An encumbrance. Besides, in practice it’s hard to sustain any curiosity about what Frank looks like under there when Michael Fassbender’s face is already familiar. In fact, it’s currently on an advert for X-Men: Days of Future Past on the side of every single bus you’ll see go by (on which he’s wearing – oh, blimey – a helmet).
A film in which Frank was just a singular, troubled musician, minus the head, would certainly have been very different and would have distanced itself even further from the curious living cartoon who first inspired it. But the result might have engaged the viewer and achieved emotional lift-off in a way that this doesn’t.
Frank is on general release in the UK and at Cornerhouse in Manchester from May 9, 2014