I’m currently re-reading one of my favorite film books, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a vastly entertaining history of The New Hollywood, that uniquely ephemeral flowering of Hollywood, circa 1967-1980. That period was marked by a transition from the original moguls, who were dying or decrepit, to the corporate conglomerates that still rule the big screens today. For those 13 glorious years, the money men knew Doctor Dolittle wasn’t going to cut it, while Easy Rider was stuffing their pockets with cash, so they gave relatively free rein to Coppola, Nicholson, Friedkin, Ashby, Altman, Beatty, et al.
Cut to 2014. Disney, Universal, Sony, Fox, even the Weinsteins funding and/or distributing Frank? Unimaginable. And yet, here it is. The point being that, yes, the current Hollywood is a nearly complete, unutterable wasteland of dreck, marked by the Weinstein machinery grinding into its inexorable Academy Award gear, to win it for their usual “film of quality.” And yet, again, here is Frank. The conclusive point being that, despite a completely different filmmaking environment, now is an era when odd and artistic films can still be made, and are, on a consistent basis. And the films actually come to fruition in much the same way they did then, by keeping the budget low, paying all the actors scale, even the “star,” who may or may not be the vessel to a profit. But no matter, because just as Bob Evans, Charlie Bluhdorn, and Bert Schneider knew in the 60’s and 70’s, if the budget is low enough, even a disaster isn’t a disaster. The only real difference now is that these films don’t exist in the big studios’ world; it’s the micro studios and the private financiers who are apparently amenable to even the weirdest propositions, like a film in which one of the most charismatic movie stars in the world wears a papier-mâché head for almost the entire running time.
Frank is ostensibly a rock ‘n’ roll story based on screenwriter Jon Ronson‘s life as keyboard player in a 90’s band, the very English phenomenon known as Frank Sidebottom. That Frank indeed wore a papier-mâché head, while performing an obscure, pseudo-vaudeville act. But Ronson’s script for the movie Frank is a much darker exegesis on the true meaning of art, and the clawing forces of the quotidian, whose weapons are fame, popularity, and cash. How brilliant to ask Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds, Shame, Hunger), that master of the tortured soul, and how nice that he accepted a part in which his face, an actor’s primary tool, would not be seen until the end; and that he saw this as the rare opportunity to express himself through his hands and voice.
As Howard Hawks said, the most entertaining movies are those with clearly delineated good guys and bad guys. And to my mind, Frank has that, in spades, although I really don’t read or hear that as viscerally as I felt it. Domhnall Gleason (About Time, Harry Potter) plays the Ronson character, here Jon Burroughs, and I believe he represents all that is wrong with music, and I would say even with life in general. Burroughs, in his doe-eyed, doughy innocence, wonders what’s wrong with Frank. He writes songs of no innocence and no experience, and obliviously presents them to Frank and the band, here a much darker and nervy entity than the real Sidebottom, verging more into Can and Beefheart territory. Three-fifths of the band react to Jon’s very existence with cold, loathing dismissal, as did I; Frank and Don (Scoot McNairy) are more naturally friendly and accepting, leading to their dark fates. One-third of that three-fifths is played by the glorious Maggie Gyllenhaal (Secretary, Donnie Darko), whose first words to Jon are “don’t touch my Theremin,” and who later cathartically stabs him. Jon is not even a philistine; he is unaware of any world beyond his own white bread, pedestrian, vapid little thoughts, and that results in disastrous, havoc-wreaking calamity. Jon represents the eternal barbarian, he who has no appreciation for art, much less for fragile beauty. – [DVD] [Blu-Ray]
DVD Release Date: 12/9/14