This film by Lenny Abrahamson (What Richard Did, 2012), is loosely based on the memoirs of Jon Ronson who had been keyboard player to the original Frank. And that was my problem.
You see being Irish, I remember the original Frank (the late Chris Sievey) who was a comedian and musician, the head was an on-stage persona and I have to say he kind of freaked me as a kid. Thankfully Abrahamson did not go with the original instead, he used the memoirs as an inspiration for what he went on to make. So with that in mind what did he do?
Abrahamson took the idea of Frank (Michael Fassbender, Hunger 2008) and his band and turned it in to a highly entertaining, witty and original piece. It is essentially a one-trick donkey but the trick carries throughout the film. The trick is about Jon Ronson , or more particularly his character Jon Burroughs (Donal Gleeson, About Time, 2012) who is a frustrated song writer who meets a rather eccentric group just as they lose their key-board player.
Whiling away his life trying to write songs from the life around him Jon is a study on mediocrity, even his twitter account is only more than a dozen people, but on lunch one day he comes across the band and is invited to gig with them that night (replacing the current keyboard player who has just tried to drown himself). Jon heads to the gig, which turns out to be a case-study in chaos. The gig ends , they drive off and Jon is left disillusioned and more-than-ever dreaming of musical success. Then out of the blue one day, they ring him and ask him to join them for something they are doing in Ireland, Jon gladly says yes and heads off for what he thinks in a weekend in Dublin.
Pretty soon is becomes clear to Jon that the band member s are all quite eccentric and not just Frank. Indeed there is a certain hostility to him from some quarters. He quickly befriends the band’s “manager” and former keyboard player, Don (Scott McNairy) from whom he learns that Frank and Don met in a mental hospital. The rest of the band is made up of the Theremin playing Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart, 2009) who resents Jon’s presence as much out of jealousy as any other reason and who give an intense performance such as to the extent that Jon at one stage asks her what she was in hospital for; to which she clarified that she was not mentally ill, his dead-pan response was that he had presumed she was mentally ill, it was a matter-of-fact reply with no malicious intent, nicely delivered.
Frank never takes off the head, and also has a medical cert to prove that he has a psychological condition, this of course intrigues Jon. As he begins to experience Frank and the band Jon jumps in with all the vigour of one new to the experience, only to learn very quickly not to expect his contributions to be noted or used. His fascination with Frank and the Band actually grows and Jon is swept along with the experience, even if he is capable of realising just how unique an experience it is. He wants to find out what is it that makes somebody a great song writer, he is convinced it is the experience of live, for the other it was situations like mental hospitals or prisons, this would be his mental hospital.
Jon ends up financing their year- long stay in a cabin in Ireland . It took a year due to Frank’s exactness and refusal to record anything until he is happy with the sound. This is an excellent piece of cinema, original, challenging and ever so much slight “off-track”, however it always stays on the right side of the joke, never tipping into obscurity. Much happens in the year long journey which eventually sees them making their way to a gig in Texas, but before they do they, must deal with the loss of Don whose daemons finally over-came him. The gig in Texas came about from Jon putting clips on the band on Youtube and tweeting about them, it becomes clear that he is getting a following. Frank is amazed and agrees to Texan while Clara is against it – she is only in it for the music and might even prefer if they had no fans.
While in Texas things become intense resulting in Frank going missing and Jon setting off to find him and bring him back, some months later he tracks him down to his parent home. The music to the film is original and performed by the cast. In some places it is highly experimental, while in others it resembles a Sigur Rós album (which is a good thing). At one point watching Maggie Gyllenhaal perform on stage I was reminded of the Midnight cabaret from Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 1999) indeed much of the story line is similar, people leaving all they have to chase a dream, a dream that does not always come true, but they keep chasing. That said, another Irish based movie also springs to mind; Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be The Place, 2011. A musician looking for his place in the world, a not very conventional place, but one none-the-less
And why not, a person may not find their dreams but maybe they will find something else along the way, perhaps something ,more valuable.
****stars, Original and smart, it will keep you entertained.