It seems easier now than ever to be a “musician”: gather a couple friends, write a few songs, release them on the Internet. But just because your music is easier to get heard does not mean that it’s necessarily good. In the 2014 comic drama Frank we follow one such mediocre musician, Jon, played by Domhnall Gleeson, who finds himself dropping everything to join an avant-garde pop band led by the enigmatic and mysterious Frank. Frank is a musical savant with a history of mental illness who hides himself inside a large papier-mâché head. Jon is enthralled with Frank’s outsider art but fails to see past his own ambitions and realize that there are dark secrets behind that fake, gigantic head.
Frank is grounded by a stunning performance from Michael Fassbender as the titular protagonist who channels Jim Morrison, Captain Beefheart, and Daniel Johnston; artists whose own troubled past and history of mental illness mirror Frank’s. Props should also be given Domnhall Gleeson, as it could have been easy to lose our sympathy for Jon as he latches on to Frank’s coattails. But in the end we realize he’s just trying to be something he’s not and for that he earns our sympathy instead of our scorn.
Some viewers might feel that the story loses steam in its melodramatic finale but the emotional third act brings home the larger theme of how different people react to mental illness when it is coupled with something like vast creativity: diner patrons call Frank a “freak” and laugh at him; Jon thinks he must have been ‘traumatized’; Frank’s parents love and support him, but are clueless about how to help him.
Ultimately, what sounds like a premise for a ridiculous indie comedy instead ends up being a deeply moving exploration of mental illness and blind artist worship. It is also wickedly funny. Director Lenny Abrahamson does a great job of juggling the seemingly contradictory tones in the film: whimsical and offbeat, sweet and punk-spirited, funny and melancholic. A definite must watch.
Frank is currently streaming on Netflix.