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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

Frank movie review: the heart of artness

by MaryAnn Johanson

Frank green light

An askew, bitter dramedy of artistic pretension and creative desperation that has something sneakily marvelous to say about what it takes — and what it doesn’t — to be an artist.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Look. You’re just gonna have to go with this.” So says Don (Scoot McNairy: Non-Stop, Promised Land) to Jon (Domhnall Gleeson: About Time, Anna Karenina), the latest member of the experimental band Soronprfbs. The weirdest thing about Soronprfbs isn’t their unpronouncable name. It isn’t that they have a Spinal Tap-esque problem keeping keyboard players (this is why keyboardist Jon has just joined). It’s that their leader, Frank (Michael Fassbender: The Counsellor, Prometheus), is never seen without his giant papier-mâché false head. Not onstage. Not backstage. Not in rehearsals. Not when just hanging out. Not ever. (Fassbender is remarkably sympathetic and frequently very funny in a performance that relies entire on his voice and body language.) That’s what Jon is gonna have to go with, and he does. Because as a wannabe musician stuck in a cube-farm day job in a depressing seaside England town, Jon is desperate for inspiration for his songwriting, which so far is mostly derivative crap. And when what he thinks is supposed to be a weekend trip to Ireland with Soronprfbs for a gig turns into “we’re staying in this remote house in the middle of nowhere until we get this album recorded,” Jon goes with that, too. “I have found my abusive childhood,” he announces happily on the Net to his meager band of Twitter and tumblr followers: he has found what he believes he needs to become a great artist like Frank.

There’s a sneakily marvelous thing about this askew, bitter dramedy of artistic pretension and creative desperation: as Jon tumbles down a rabbit hole of what looks like performance art taken to an extreme, his misapprehension — which mirrors a general misapprehension among our culture at large — about what it takes to be an artist and what it takes to make art gets a much deserved smack upside his normal-sized flesh-and-blood head. Sadness lurks under the acerbic battle for the soul of the band that develops between Jon and theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal: White House Down, Hysteria): she’s extremely protective of Frank and their music, almost to the point of not wanting anyone to hear it, while Jon at least has some notion of what it takes to succeed in today’s pop culture, and has been posting videos of the band to YouTube, where they’ve been getting some attention. The middle of nowhere, it turns out, isn’t the middle of nowhere anymore if you’ve got Internet access, which also prompts the question, Doesn’t art require an audience to be art? Though your audience isn’t always going to take from your art what you intend, either…

Look. You’re just gonna have to go with this. And you should. Frank is a weird little wonder.

Frank (2014)
US/Canada release date: Aug 15 2014 | UK release date: May 09 2014

MPAA: rated R for language and some sexual content
BBFC: rated 15 (very strong language, strong sex, suicide scene)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • Damian Barajas

    This is relevant to my interests! Thanks for letting me know about something that was nowhere near my radar.

  • Paul

    One of the (many) peculiarities about this movie is that it’s based on Jon Ronson’s experiences as Frank Sidebottom’s keyboardist. Frank Sidebottom being a very strange English pop phenomenon who, er, never took off his papier mache head… you get the picture? And yet the movie is very much not a biopic of Frank (the real Frank, Chris Sievey by name, died a couple of years ago).Chances are that fans of the real Frank will hate the movie, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Frank himself would have preferred this to a mere biopic.

    I saw Frank Sidebottom at the Reading Festival in the 90s, having previously heard him via bootlegs, and he was about as English eccentric as you can get (worth checking him out on YouTube to get an idea of how different he was to the movie incarnation). He utterly charmed my wife, though.

  • It’s not so much based on as very very loosely inspired by.

  • Paul

    I don’t think that’s a fair characterisation. It’s about a musician called Frank who wears a papier mache head. That’s a pretty unique proposition, and I think the term “based on” is justified, with the caveat of “then significantly fictionalised.” Ronson did discuss this (film) project with Sievey before the latter’s death.The film isn’t a biopic of Frank, but it is “based on” him in the sense that it represents his appearance and much of his psychology and aspirations.

    And more to the point, Ronson himself isn’t wiggling out of things by saying “very very loosely inspired by”. He’s quite upfront that it’s about Frank Sidebottom: “What if we fictionalised the whole thing? It could be a fable instead of a biopic – a tribute to people like Frank who were just too fantastically strange to make it in the mainstream.”

  • RogerBW

    It’s certainly an impressive cast, though Gleeson hasn’t yet jumped out at me in the way Gyllenhaal and Fassbender have.

  • I feel the same. He’s fine here, but so far in his few films he hasn’t had much presence.

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