I Love You All.
DIRECTED BY LENNY ABRAHAMSON/2014
Let’s be frank, let’s talk straight…
Sometimes things don’t go the way we want them to. In fact, most of the time, things don’t go the way we think they should. For the creative, the visionary, the artist, the desire to explore new and unclaimed territory is fundamentally irresistible. Even if it’s just in some small way, we gotta make our mark. The risks are practically insurmountable. And the pain of failure, the fallout of collaborative partnerships, is particularly tough. Yet, from such circumstances, magic can in fact happen… Frank is one such story.
Perhaps you’ve seen the images of Frank’s title character, a tall lanky rock singer in a huge cartoon-looking fiberglass head. (The man under the head, we’re assured, is Oscar nominee Michael Fassbender. For the most part, we must simply choose to believe it’s really him.) In the film, the character is just as esoteric, just as offbeat as the imagery would suggest: Some sort of depressed introvert demanding to be noticed. He never takes the head off, even when he’s not performing. He’s amassed a small band of acolytes, each one devoted to his cause (his music) in his or her own way (via the instruments they play). Frank is indeed unforgettable as a film presence (all the more reason to believe that it is indeed Fassbender in there), as enigmatic as he is flaky.
The film’s uneasy tone bears out as its veneer of comic absurdism gives way to in-too-deep melancholy, and we come to the harsh understanding that even here, among other musical crazies and outcasts, Jon remains alone. Even ostracized.
But this actually isn’t the story of Frank. Frank tells the woe-ridden tale of a young man from a small English village just looking for that spark, his own place in a creative community. Played by Domhnall Gleeson, Jon Burroughs is a drifting, repressed would-be musician with half-cooked lyrics popping in and out of his skull, uninvited. He’s just another socially awkward mussed-up red-head with a short attention span, evoking a Ron Weasley who never made it to wizard school. (And whaddayaknow, Gleeson played Bill Weasley in the final Harry Potter films!) Nevermind that Jon uses social media more than he uses his own musical keyboard – when he is offered a slot in Frank’s esoteric, weird-for-the-sake-of-weird band, it’s an offer he cannot refuse.
He plays a whacked out gig. He helps them in the quest to “perfect their sound”. He ventures with them to an isolated cabin. They stay there for years. Jon, in his repressed glee and desperation to belong, opts to fund the whole thing with his “nest egg”. In the history of financial creative gambles, sure, bigger risks have been taken. But nonetheless, a gamble this is. Not that Jon cares…
The music they make is warped dissonance, all theremins, sampled sounds, synthesizers and senseless rambling beat poetry. There are but glints of outsider approachability in the fractured sessions shown. (It’s as though the actors all actually went off and did this dysfunctional rock n’ roll camp for a while, and director Lenny Abranhamson came around as needed to shoot some of it.) The film’s uneasy tone bears out as its veneer of comic absurdism gives way to in-too-deep melancholy, and we come to the harsh understanding that even here, among other musical crazies and outcasts, Jon remains alone. Even ostracized.
But Frank likes him. Frank sees and hears promise in Jon that no one else can or does. One gets the impression that Frank maybe says this to all the troops. But then again, one also believes him. And keeps on believing. Is it any wonder Jon hangs around? Or even that he pays significant cash to hang around? Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the band’s chain-smoking dragon at the gate, hates Jon. She might even want to kill him. Is the abuse he takes worth it? Do the brief shiny moments of glowing musical alchemy justify it? Even if those moments, intended for passionate audiences to engage with passionately, just aren’t finding that audience??
Not that the sight of a guy singing bizarre music in a huge all-consealing homemade head is ever normal, but within the U.K., it might be a little more familiar. Frank is in some small, partial way, based upon the real-life musical character of the late Chris Sievey, aka Frank Sidebottom. Although screenwriter Jon Ronson (who co-wrote Frank with Peter Straughan) did serve real time in one of Sievey‘s bands, the film is far from a true life biopic. The platform and genesis idea is undeniably Sidebottom, but the final vision is far and away bottoms up, swapping out the Sidebottom all-ages novelty with Abrahamson’s spot-on, R-rated cloudy spark. If the saddest episode of Pee Wee’s Playhouse were conceived in the woods by Charlie Kaufman, it might be something like this.
There is at least one great song, and the movie makes you wait for it. Michael Fassbender warbles “I Love You All” with infinite Jim Morrison croon, not a Frank Sidebottom nasal enunciation in sight. What hovers in the delivery are the sad facts of a life of artistic risk; one desperate to reach out, yet forever inside one’s own head, as it were. Sievey, for all the weird wonder he brought to the table, died impoverished, only avoiding a pauper’s funeral when fans realized the situation.
But at least he had fans, which might be more than Frank’s band in the film can claim. The song “I Love You All” is the rug that holds the room together, if this room is one that can or does hold together. He free associates: “Prodigal son waits to return to where the dogs play pool… I love you all…”
Maybe you just have to be there.
And to be sure, compared to most of Fassbender’s work these days (X-Men movies, Alien prequels, etc.), few will be there for this performance. But if you’ve ever been or known a frustrated creative, something deep in the heart of Frank will resonate with you, inside your own head.