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Frank: Skewering the cult of mental illness as art

by Giovanni Fazio

Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young man with a dream: He wants to be in a band. He wanders the streets looking for something, anything, to give him some inspiration to write a song, and spends endless hours twinkling at his keyboard. Yet everything he pens is absolute crap and he seems much better at writing tweets than lyrics.

When Jon gets a sudden offer to fill in for a keyboard player in a cult band from out of town, he jumps at the chance. There he meets Frank (Michael Fassbender), the band’s eccentric singer — best described as “random,” in the parlance of our times — who not only performs wearing an oversized papier-mache puppet head, but wears it 24/7 and never breaks character.

Frank is at once childlike, bizarre and on the edge, but more important to Jon, it seems, is that he’s a gigging musician. When Frank’s manager (Scoot McNairy) asks Jon to join Frank’s band (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Carla Azar and Francois Civil) for a recording session in a remote Irish cottage, he jumps at the chance, though he’s shocked when he arrives to find rationed food and a cultlike process of deconditioning.

The hermetic intensity of the recording session has clear echoes of the legends surrounding Captain Beefheart’s eight-month preparation for recording the 1969 album, “Trout Mask Replica.”

What “Frank” does here, rather brilliantly, is contrast the unbridled id of outsider-art creativity — Frank opening and shutting a door repeatedly and declaring “I could do an entire album with this one sound” — with the practical careerism of someone like Jon, who is endlessly posting YouTube videos of the band. He is hustling for a coveted gig at South by Southwest festival, and suggesting that the band “pull back its corners a bit . . . to make us more likable.”

Yet Jon couldn’t write a song if his life depended on it; his earnest attempt to do so — a song called “The Best Day of My Life,” with a hopelessly twee “la-la-la-la-la” pop hook — leaves Frank shrieking and rolling on the floor with fear and loathing.

This is often played for laughs — “Miserable childhood, mental illness. Where do I find that kind of inspiration?” moans Jon — and a savvy script by Peter Straughan and Jon Ronson skewers the indie-rock cult of mental illness as so-called pure art. (See Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Daniel Johnston, Jandek, et al.)

Ronson played keyboards for three years with the real Frank Sidebottom (aka Manchester performance artist Chris Sievey), and while this is no straight biopic, Ronson clearly understands what happens when the performance becomes the man. This leads to a surprising turn late in the film, where the comedy gives way to something more sincere, and a hard-earned lesson about how, sometimes, the best response is to paint yourself out of the picture.