Frank (2014) by Lenny Abrahamson
Retro Review by Ash Baker
Sometimes my urge to post on social media feels a little unhealthy. It feels like I’m grasping for an audience when there’s really nothing to see on the stage.
So it goes for many people. And so it goes for Jon Burroughs (played by Domhnall Gleeson), the protagonist of Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank.
Frank is based on a somewhat updated version of writer Jon Ronson’s experience with Frank Sidebottom’s Oh Blimey Big Band. Burroughs is a seemingly-well-meaning aspiring songwriter. I say seemingly, because at first, he does seem completely sincere, completely pure of intention. Jon tweets about everything. After wandering around aimlessly, blank notebook in hand, humming off-key tunes about things he sees on the street, he types, “Working hard on songs all day.”
While ironic and a little sad, this doesn’t seem sinister. I get the feeling Jon is lonely, and he seems to have a genuine desire to create good music.
After witnessing the attempted suicide of the keyboard player of a visiting band, Jon is invited onstage for an impromptu performance. The band is led by the mystical Frank (played by Michael Fassbender), a man who wears a giant paper mâché head at all times. The group seems to Jon revolutionary, and yet, completely unstable and bizarre.
Frank ends up inviting Jon to the wilderness with the band to help record their album, where he finds he is unwelcome by most members of the band. Jon’s goal becomes to “show them what [he is] capable of,” meanwhile blogging and tweeting his entire experience.
Jon’s relationship with the internet intensifies as his time at the cabin goes along. He seems always to remain positive, even when things aren’t as good as they could be. At one point, he tells the band he writes his own songs, and when asked to play one, attempts to take it back. He tries at a song or two and humiliates himself. Jon has exposed himself as a phony, and Clara (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), Frank’s love interest, says to Jon in private, “Someone needs to punch you in the face.”
It would be easy to roll your eyes at Jon as the band does, but his frustration in this moment is portrayed in such a genuine way. As he stabs at the keyboard and struggles to find a melody, he says, “Fuck, you know when you’ve just got so many songs and then just none of them’ll fucking come out?” The band doesn’t sympathize, but I’d wager that there are quite a few artists in the audience who have been there, whatever their creative endeavor might be. I have certainly been there.
Don is the only one in the band who understands Jon’s struggle. While Jon’s blog and Twitter account are his only true confidant, Don acts as a (perhaps unwanted) adviser for Jon.
Don is a mirror character for Jon (their names clearly reflect each other as well), but Don seems to mentally deteriorate as their time in the wilderness goes along. Even before they arrive, he says to Jon, “[Frank] lives all the way out there, in the furthest corners. Fuck, I want to be Frank.”
Jon doesn’t seem like he understands. Later, Don comes into Jon’s room while he’s composing a song. He says to Jon, “There can only be one Frank.” Jon seems to interpret this as, “There can only be one front man,” or, “Frank is the only one who can write the songs around here.” But it seems like Don is trying to warn Jon about something more serious.
The day after the band finishes their album, Jon finds Don, who has hung himself in Frank’s spare head. The desire to be Frank, or to have his artistic genius, drove him to suicide. It never occurs to Jon that Don is also mentally ill, and this is how he ends up. He still maintains the erroneous idea that Frank’s mental illness is what “creates the great music.”
As Jon’s follower count increases, Jon begins posting videos of Frank and the band that no one knows about. Jon becomes obsessed with the idea that Frank could and should be famous—that they should be famous as a group, Jon included, despite the fact that the majority of the band, namely Clara, are opposed to Jon’s inclusion. Jon gets angry when they don’t use any of his “compositions” on the record. He tweets about it.
I recently saw an MSNBC interview where guitarist and songwriter John Mayer discusses the effect of social media on the performing musician. Mayer himself had recently deleted his Twitter account at the time of the interview. He says of the spotlight, “You’re leaning into the role…number one, you’re not playing music anymore, number two, you’re not feeling anything honestly, and number three, you’re not saying anything honestly.”
We know that honesty is key for Frank as an artist. He says to Jon when they’re at the cabin, “I say, tell everyone everything. Why cover anything up, right?” This is an important moment, considering that Jon has been dishonest with the band about his activities on the web. It also explains why, when Jon convinces Frank to change their sound just before a major gig at South by Southwest, to make them “a bit more likable,” Frank has a complete mental breakdown.
“The music is shit, the music is shit,” Frank repeats to himself, as he curls into the fetal position. The audience isn’t worth sacrificing artistic integrity, not to Frank.
In the end, the question I find myself asking is, does Jon want to be a great musician, or does he just want fame?
I think that maybe deep down he wants to be a great musician, but he just lacks one key thing: real talent. He knows that Frank is already great, and Jon wants that greatness for himself. For Jon, Frank changes from a mystical talent to be cherished to a tool to get what he wants. Jon needs Frank because Frank is who people “love,” or rather, who people are entertained by. Frank is what gives Jon the illusion of greatness—the view count, the Twitter followers. But Jon doesn’t realize that the numbers aren’t necessarily affirmation. He’s too naive to realize people watch YouTube videos for all types of reasons, not just for their “greatness” factor. I’m reminded of the legendary epic fail, Rebecca Black’s Friday. I remember wondering what would happen when she discovered all those views were people laughing at her.
In the end, Jon doesn’t end up finding his place, but he knows it is not with Frank. We don’t know what becomes of Jon, but at least the audience has the solace of knowing that hopefully Frank will be okay, making good music that no one listens to, with people that he loves and trusts.
This review does a complete disservice to the potential discussions about the performances in this film, the photography, and the writing. Michael Fassbender, one of the great actors of our time, spends 99% of this movie with his face and head covered. His performance, both vocally and gesturally, is superb. It is one of my favorites he has done, and like many other roles he has taken on, it is ambitious.
This film is funny, sad, ridiculous, but most of all, I think, human and true. It has something to say about musicianship in an age where everyone who has a Macbook or an iPhone has instant songwriting software, and quite a bit more to say about what does or doesn’t make an artist. While it can lean sometimes heavily on irony towards its characters, I think it’s a movie that has sincere ideas and sympathies embedded in the narrative, and without a doubt, the most unforgettable front man.