A number of recent movies have attempted, with varying success, to weave social media into their stories to better reflect the realities of how we live now. Twitter and Instagram figure prominently into the story, such as it is, of Jon Favreau’s Chef. All manner of technology drives the multiple storylines of Jason Reitman’s Men, Women, and Children. Neither film is inaccurate on the subject exactly, but the both expend a lot of too-obvious effort to make statements about this new-ish digital world.
Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, now out on Blu-ray, is not directly about social media; it’s most obviously a movie about music, ambition, mental illness, and the nature of artistic inspiration. But in telling the story of a willfully obscure indie rock band led by Frank (Michael Fassbender), a man who wears a papier-mâché head at all times, the film uses Twitter and Tumblr without ever striking a false note, making it all look much easier and more natural than it probably is.
Almost all of the social media interactions displayed on screen center on Jon (Domhnall Gleason), a musician who is struggling in the sense that he doesn’t seem to know how to write songs, or even really play music for longer than a few bars. The movie opens with some of his attempts at day-to-day composition in voiceover, augmented by tweets that perfectly batch the self-distraction, and self-mythologizing that Twitter integrates at its banal worst — and I say this as a committed user of the platform. By chance, he meets up with Frank’s band when they’re in need of a keyboard player. Don (Scoot McNairy) invites him to join. The other members seem hostile, but it’s not long before Jon heads to a countryside cabin to lay down an album.
Throughout this process, the movie keeps checking in with Jon’s Twitter account, which slowly amasses a following, as does his blog, through which he chronicles his work with Frank’s unpronounceably-named band. While Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) continues to regard him with scorn and Baraque (François Civil) and Nana (Carla Azar) curse at him in French, Don and especially Frank prove welcoming. Jon thinks he may have found the creative break he’s been seeking.
It’s not surprising that Frank would take a liking to Jon. Franks is characterized as “fascinated by the entire spectrum of sound” and, as such, open to pretty much any sound, from creaking furniture, to the whine of a theremin, and to Jon’s half-formed ditties. Fassbender gives a remarkable performance hidden in plain sight. His commanding face is absent, and his steely voice is both muffled by the head and flattened into an American accent that sounds a cross between Dane Cook, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the voice distorter serial killers in movies always use to taunt cops. At least for a while, Frank, while he is inside the mask, is one of the warmest and funniest characters Fassbender has played. At one point he begins indicating his facial expressions verbally: “Welcoming smile”, he’ll say.
Frank is a very funny movie, but it’s also a thoughtful one, even when mixing slapstick into its exploration of Frank’s creative process. There are so many ways this movie could go wrong, and while it occasionally looks like a self-consciously deadpan celebration of indie rock quirk, it’s actually an exploration of it, smartly puncturing myths about mental instability and its relationship to genius. Frank and at least one of the other band members turn out to be legitimately unstable. In the process, Jon becomes weirdly admiring of their problems, hoping that the experience in the woods and, later, his efforts to get them a breakthrough gig at South by Southwest, will be “[his] abusive childhood, [his] mental hospital”. It’s a perfect extension of the social-media solipsism the movie depicts, but doesn’t destroy with heavy-handed or cranky satire.
Through the gloriously erratic music (which includes a moving performance by Fassbender of a song called “I Love You All”), the movie also functions as a tribute to art that feels like a struggle: to create, to share, to listen to. The commentary track featuring Abrahamson, Gleason, and others discusses how the filmmakers modulated their use of that music, deciding when use score versus the movie’s fake songs, or whether to score Jon’s improvised head-songs. Through this attention to detail, they’re able to craft a music-centric movie that very much speaks to the moment while hardly name-dropping a single point of musical reference — no Daniel Johnston, no Brian Wilson, not even much taken from the life of the “real” Frank, an Englishman who wore a similar head as a committed comedy bit.
The disc includes, as is customary, about ten minutes of deleted scenes (about half of which consists of a drug trip sequence). Most of the material turns out to be amusing, but unnecessary. Frank says and does a lot in its 95 minutes.