Certainly the band looks and sounds unique. Jon doesn't hear their music until their first gig, and isn't intimidated by the off-key screeches that pass for the group's sound. He isn't even put off by Frank, the mysterious singer who happens to be a former mental patient and refuses to go anywhere without wearing an oversized paper mache head. Eccentricity and suffering, Jon figures, is part of being an artist. Plus, he's just glad to be in a group.
Michael Fassbender plays Frank, and brings to the role exactly what is required, a slightly goofy, but talented performer who is still suffering from some mental imbalances. That Fassbender can create a wholly nuanced character from within the giant mask is quite a feat. I also liked his singing - he reminded me of Ian Curtis from Joy Division. The band follows Frank blindly, even when he insists they spend a year living in the wilderness to prepare for their next album. "There's only one Frank," says one of the band members, a sadsack who is also a former mental patient. "And I wish I could be him." There seemed to be a message here about being true to yourself, and not hiding behind masks, but fortunately, there isn't a lot of heavyhanded muck about the fine line between creativity and insanity. The analogy is there if you want it, but the movie can be enjoyed without digging around for themes. The band itself could give you fits if you're inclined to look for symbols - one member speaks only French, the keyboard players all have death wishes, and another member, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, is openly hostile towards Jon for being relatively normal in comparison to the rest. "You need to be punched in the face," she says at one point. Eventually, she punches him. And stabs him.
Jon puts up with the aggravation because he thinks the band can be a success. He puts clips of their rehearsals on YouTube, and the group is eventually invited to play a gig at the South By Southwest music festival in Dallas. But this drive towards normalcy is the band's undoing. By gig time, only Jon and Frank remain to carry on. Can a mediocre musician and an ex-mental patient make it? No, but it's fascinating to watch them try.
There's been a lot of hubbub about Frank being inspired by the life of English comedian/musician Chris Sievey, who created a character named Frank Sidebottom. The movie, although based on the memoirs of a former band member of Sievey's, isn't to be taken as a biography of any kind. It works extremely well, though, as a sort of fractured fairy tale. I like how director LarryAbrahamson shows these people behaving in ways that go beyond societal norms, yet we believe that's how how things would go down in their world. He directed another excellent movie a few years ago, an Irish production known simply as Garage. It was another fable of sorts about a man with mental issues. He's also made films about drug addicts, and troubled teens. I like him, although I wasn't sure if I liked what Maggie Gyllanhaal was doing in this movie. She's played so many grotesques that it's becoming rather old hat for her. Still, I keep remembering the orgasmic look on her face when she played her keyboard. I guess that's why she gets these parts.