Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson) isn’t a terribly talented musician — when first we meet him, he’s struggling to chronicle the lives of passersby through improvised lyrics — but he is an enthusiastic chap. When unpronounceable American-French musical act Soronprfbs soon arrives in his English hamlet seeking a less suicidal keyboard player, Jon is just their man. He tries not to mind that lead vocalist Frank (Michael Fassbender) performs, eats, sleeps and showers while wearing a papier mache head adorned with a cooling fan and a feeding tube. He tries not to mind that theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) can hardly disguise her disdain for this intruder. More importantly, he tries not to mind that an invitation to join the band immediately results in a year-long retreat to Ireland where an endlessly eclectic creative process tends to result in more outbursts than singles.
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, “Frank” takes a loose inspiration from co-writer Jon Ronson’s own experiences playing keyboard with the head-covered Frank Sidebottom, alter ego of the late English comedian and musician Chris Sievey, but what initially seems like a typically quirky tale of underdog success (Jon’s social media presence proves an unwitting boon to the band, leading to a prized gig at South by Southwest) rather deftly explores the modern commodification of quirk and how the traditional measures of success may not be what this gang of misfits needs, or even wants.
Don’t worry, though, it’s plenty funny until broaching such concerns. Gleeson is a feasibly self-involved narrator (initially aimed at an audience of 14 followers, his on-screen tweets speak well to his harmlessly navel-gazing personality) and a welcome straight man in the face of Fassbender’s more elusive sense of personal expression (“I could make an entire album out of just this one sound,” he says of a squeaky hinge) and Gyllenhaal’s displays of unmotivated tyranny. Even the band manager, drolly played by Scoot McNairy, seems normal until we learn of his hardcore mannequin fetish. Yet these four — along with two other underdeveloped members (François Civil and Carla Azar) — eventually make beautiful music together; whether or not their songs are intelligible is a whole other story.
The screenplay suggests and then explores the notion that such free-wheeling artistry must be borne of deeper psychological dilemmas, as evidenced by recurring suicidal tendencies among the group’s members. “What was it like inside that head inside that head?,” Jon asks himself, and Abrahamson attempts to answer that question without tidily explaining away Frank’s quirks or the band’s appeal. Though they may not seem it at first, the members of Soronprfbs are fragile individuals who value one another more than the adoration of countless strangers. Such a cherished ideal of outsider art is enough to plaster a smile on any face hiding beneath its own ever-grinning facade.