Third Way Media MattersSeptember 26, 2014

When normal is a fake head

At the Grammy Awards this year, two robots walked off with the prize for album of the year. Dressed in futuristic helmets, stylish suits, and metallic-looking gloves, the French duo known collectively as Daft Punk came up to the podium, but said nothing, instead deferring to collaborator Pharrell Williams for the acceptance speech. Pharrell Wiliams thanked the robots while the French futurists nodded.

Frank isn’t a biopic, but rather a fictitious look at how artistry, mental illness, and loyalty intersect.

While this may seem strange to people who had never seen or heard of the band, Daft Punk hasn’t performed without use of their robot outfits for more than a decade. And those who follow the electronic dance music (EDM) scene know that Daft Punk isn’t alone. Joel Zimmerman, a.k.a. Deadmau5, wears a giant mouse head during his performances, and Aaron Jerome, a.k.a. SBTRKT, wears ceremonial masks during concerts as well. In other words, it is socially acceptable in the music world.

In the movie Frank, the late British comedian Chris Sievey dons a giant, inflatable-looking head to transform himself into bandleader Frank Sidebottom. Writer Jon Ronson was in Sievey’s band and used Sidebottom as inspiration to co-write the screenplay for Frank with Peter Straughan. Frank isn’t a biopic, but rather a fictitious look at how artistry, mental illness, and loyalty intersect.

The quirky, dark, British comedy follows Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson), a young Irish man with a normal day job, 14 Twitter followers, and a dream of becoming a rock star. He thinks in songs, but his lyrical thoughts are simple observations, such as when he passes a woman in a coat carrying a purse: “Lady in a red coat, where are you going with that bag?” He passes another woman: “Lady in a blue coat, where are you going with that bag?”

One day, as he struggles to find inspiration, he finds himself at the beach, where the keyboard player for a band called “Soronprfbs” tries to drown himself. After talking to the band’s manager, Jon shows up at the band’s show that night to fill in on keyboard. Due to sound problems and the anger management issues of theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the concert lasts half a song, which is enough time for Jon to come face-to-inflatable-face with Frank (Michael Fassbender), the band’s lead singer and chief songwriter.

After conceding that his rock-and-roll dreams have died, the band’s manager calls him and asks him to join the band on an adventure. Thinking that he’s going on a weekend tour and will be back to work on Monday, Jon agrees, only to find himself in the Irish countryside for a year while the band records its new album. Jon observes the band’s undying and uncompromising devotion to Frank, who never takes off his fake head, even to shower. Jon starts to believe in Frank as well, even while he struggles to fit in with his band mates, especially the always-angry Clara. Jon starts to find acceptance when he spends his inheritance from his grandparents to fund the band’s album after their money runs out.

Unbeknownst to the band, Jon has been documenting the band’s year on You Tube and social media, and Jon and the band gain a small cult following, which leads to an invitation to the much-hyped South by Southwest music festival. As Jon’s followers grow, so do his dreams and his influence on Frank, much to the chagrin of the rest of the Soronprfbs.

There is no definition of normal in Frank. No one, other than Jon, questions the giant head. Quirks are celebrated and, in the case of Frank, are revered. The band members individually would give a psychiatrist job security for decades to come, but collectively they are committed to being Frank’s backbone. Jon would best fit society’s definition of normal, but in Soronprfbs he is the outsider. He blindly commits to following his dream of stardom without knowing at all what will become of his future. He straddles the line of sanity and insanity and has to learn to celebrate small victories in lieu of big dreams.

While Frank works as a semi-dramatic ensemble comedy, it loses some of its focus in the last 20 minutes when it abandons the comedic charms that made it likable in the first place. While characters have to evolve in order to make a movie interesting, the character developments leap too far in the end, without enough set up. That’s not to say the ending is completely unsatisfactory, but it doesn’t seamlessly mesh with the first three quarters of the movie.

The film’s early triumphs, coupled with the excellent performances from Gleeson, Fassbender and Gyllenhaal, ultimately make the movie a good one. The movie succeeds when the giant head is an afterthought. Even the robots of Daft Punk would be pleased that in the end, it is the substance that outlasts the façade.

3 out of 4 stars. Rated R for language, adult themes and quirky Irish humor.