Sundance London: Frank review

The unassuming protagonist of Frank is Jon (Domhnall Gleeson). Underneath the skin of of this suburban, ginger haired office worker is a frustrated artist struggling to get out.

Into Jon’s life walks Frank. He’s the leader of an unconventional musical band who insists on wearing a giant head at all times, never ever removing it, even when going through customs. As he’s wont to explain, he has a special certificate.

The head and some other aspects of the story are inspired by Frank Sidebottom, the alias of musician Chris Sievey, but this story has a great many points of reference. I was also reminded of Daniel Johnston, Captain Beefheart, Roky Erickson and even Jandek. The approach goes far beyond a simple biopic.

Following their keyboardist’s attempt to drown himself, Jon is recruited into the band and joins them in a remote location in Ireland where they plan to record their debut album. It’s at this point that Jon becomes absorbed in their cult-like hierarchy and so are we, drawn into this family by the the charisma of its enigmatic leader.

Until now, Jon’s Twitter feed has mainly consisted of posts about his lunch with hashtags like #livingthedream,  but when he starts sharing the band’s unorthodox rehearsals and strange behaviour, his follower count keeps climbing.

It’s worth pointing out that Frank is a very rare example of a film that actually gets social media right. Everyone involved clearly understands how social media services actually work and are used, and as a result, the way in which Twitter is used to help tell the story is also highly effective.

Frank is a determined creative artist and demands exacting standards from his band. This brings to mind the extreme conditions under which an artist such as Captain Beefheart would rehearse his band. Frank has invented a new musical scale. Frank believes he could make a whole album using just the sound of squeaking door. Frank believes the band’s music has cosmic significance. Frank is some sort of musical genius, or maybe he has mental health problems. Or perhaps both of those things are true.

The balancing act that writers Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan, with the uncluttered and intelligent direction of Lenny Abrahamson, manage to attain with Frank’s character is key to the success of the film, but there are so many other delicate equilibriums achieved. In combination, they make this a miracle of a film.

Frank is a really, really funny film, with a many amusing scenes, funny gags and laugh out loud lines of dialogue but ultimately it also makes for a deeply sad and moving experience. The final scenes, which seem to be where the film was most heavily inspired by the life of Daniel Johnston, are deeply affecting. I found a very significant lump in my throat as the film reached it’s heartbreakingly beautiful climax. And yet this was after a number of scenes of surrealist comedy, punchy one-liners, pratfalls and even a highly comedic sex scene between Jon and the band’s multi-instrumentalist and ‘queen witch’ Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

It’s a rare feat for a film to use both pathos and comedy with such astounding effect, despite many trying. It’s even more remarkable that Lenny Abrahamson and co. have also made a film that reflects deeply on the creation of art, investigates how the desire for popularity can be toxic, and explores a character dealing with mental health issues in a way that is understanding and nuanced.

Frank is, like its titular character, an absolute creative marvel and one-of-a-kind.

If you’re too late for the Sundance London screenings, Frank is out in UK cinemas on the 9th of May. There is currently no confirmed US release date but the film has been picked up by Magnolia Pictures.