Saturday, November 8, 2014
If Hal Ashby were alive today, he would probably make a film like Frank. Lenny Abrahamson's latest feature (from a script from in part Jon Ronson) has Ashby's sense of eccentricity but a contentment with that. The characters here are all alive, even the ones who don't have a lot of lines (the ones who speak French, yes them too). It's a story about creativity and process, and how it can tear a person apart or make someone who doesn't have it down yet that much hungrier to achieve it.
It is extremely funny through its off-beat dialog, how a line will come out from where you completely least expect it, and yet it's got a core that is very serious. Frank deals with mental illness in a way that is both delicate but subtle; we know a good many in this band are crazy, some maybe just more clinically so than others. But the director and writers never go to mocking them. It's completely sincere, and so, hopefully, most of us buy it too.
The audience surrogate, at least in a sense, is John (Gleeson), who happens upon this group on an Irish beach - he happens to play keyboard relatively and is up to play with the Soronfbs just by reputation - and it changes his life. They go off into the woods to record an album (naturally), and it's here that John thinks, of course via a Twitter and blog (like, duh), he'll become a real artist. The problem is, in comic-dramatic fashion in this story, Frank (Michael Fassbender) is the boss, and the second in command, Clara (Gyllenhaal), doesn't want any of this ginger-haired upstart. The main chunk of the film is about this friction, how John changes or... actually, how he doesn't exactly. Not, as a good story would have it, until near the end.
Frank is a rock and roll movie, but I've rarely seen one as funny as this. And it's disarming in its humor, its asides, and the dark edges that wrap around so much of the storyline and characters. I have to think without a character like John this movie would still be watchbable, but a bit more impenetrable. John gets into the weirdness of this avant-garde group, the kind that records sounds of the wind and water being poured for their album, and experiment for a full year, fourteen hours a day. We feel the weirdness right along with him.
For how unusual Frank looks, a great amount of the power of Fassbender's performance is that we don't see him for 99% of the film. Fassbender's voice is enough, and he uses it as well as his body to convey so much. He makes a fully realized character and a soulful, uproarious deadpan satire of rock stars - but without the face, which is quite hard to do; in a sense though he's playing a rock-n-roll Darth Vader (maybe crossed with Jim Morrison if he'd gone through five different alternative scenes). But despite Frank's trajectory is that of someone with mental illness, there's not too much of a feeling of cringing when he does some oddball choices (for example, for a friend's ashes, he instead tosses out into the wind flour), and the writing hatches on to these folks being true to themselves.
So, by the time the group makes its album, and heads by luck to SxSW to play a gig, they're not so unusual anymore. The movie emphasizes this band as family, and it's here that the movie has yet another level, about the dysfunctional brothers and sisters (are there even any parents? maybe Frank and Clara, but it could go either way), and John as the adopted child or pet who tries to get in with his music, which falls up short more often than not - at least in the midst of the eclectic and strange. So yet another thing, about who's got it and who doesn't in art; this is a sort of topic that is not new to movies, to be sure (hey, Amadeus for one). But here, it gets a fresh take thanks to the characters being likable and unlikable in equal measure. We don't know what could come next for John or Frank or anyone really.
And the music itself... it's actually pretty cool. Or maybe it's terrible, but it's a cool-terrible, if that makes sense. Of course, if you don't have any sort of open ear for experimental stuff - whether this goes past like Radiohead or Pink Floyd for you I don't know - it might seem like a big laugh at experimental music's expense. And yet it's all so original and of its own (the actors playing the music and Fassbender singing with everything he's got live by the way) it's hard to see it being mockable except in almost an intellectual way. I remember before seeing the film the band performed on the Colbert Report, and the initial shock of seeing these actors playing and singing with this giant head included faded in like ten seconds. It's real music, as bizarre and left field it is.
A slight downside is that, maybe just at first but here and there, Gleeson is a little one note. Or, maybe that's the character himself, harping on the same beat of 'I want to make good music, here's a song!' Where he goes and how he takes charge and deals with the conflict of this group, while things go from weird to shocking to sad to weird and off-putting and delirious and sad again, makes so much of the film engaging and different and with integrity. And the ending is simply extraordinary. So much leads these characters, through ups and downs, to a point where they're just on a stage (in part) and find the song a certain way.
I love when stories go on such a real but absurdist journey, and there's no lack of humor in the face of a dramatic story that has characters facing personal odds and ends, and can find a place that feels true and heart-breaking in a way. We don't know what will happen to the Soronfbs from here, but they don't lack artistry. Finding a movie that can handle that really well and true is rare.