Frank is a strange and wonderful new movie drawn from an even stranger and not quite so wonderful real-life story. It's a way-offbeat indie exercise, and the fact that Michael Fassbender, of all people, was drawn to star in it, with his famous face hidden inside a big fake head, is strangely wonderful in itself.
The film's inspiration is the late Chris Sievey, a pop-punky English musician who became a cult figure in the 1980s and early '90s as Frank Sidebottom, the leader of a provincial club band that specialized in ricky-tick Queen and Beatles covers. To play this role, Sievey concealed his identity within a beach-ball-size papier-mâché head, which he wore both onstage and, frequently, offstage as well. The head's painted-on googly-eyed expression could be read as either music-hall jollity or something a little more sinister, and whatever might have compelled Sievey to hide behind it remains unclear.
The movie's script was constructed by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan (The Men Who Stare at Goats), together with the Irish director, Lenny Abrahamson. It's based on a short memoir by Ronson, who played keyboards in the Sidebottom band. Not wanting to embarrass Sievey—who okayed the project before he died, penniless, in 2010—the writers avoided addressing darker issues in his story. Instead, they fictionalized it, transported it to the present day, and expanded it into a fond appreciation of outsider musicians—difficult artists who give their all for an audience that never shows up. So in addition to particulars of Sievey's career, there are also clear allusions to the obsessive Captain Beefheart and the bipolar Daniel Johnston, along with a possible a nod to the troubled Roky Erickson.
The story is told from the point of view of a Ronson-like character named Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson). Jon is an amateur songwriter of no great talent who nevertheless dreams of pop stardom. One day he's approached by an odd character named Don (Scoot McNairy), the manager of a band with the unpronounceable name of Soronprfbs. The group is in sudden need of a keyboard player for a gig that night. Jon plays keyboards, sort of. Don asks if he can play the chords C, F and G. Jon can. "You're in," says Don.
The band is harshly unwelcoming. The drummer (Carla Azar, of Autolux) doesn't say much, but the French guitarist (François Civil) mutters barbed insults in his native tongue, and Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who plays the theremin, is outright hostile. ("Someone needs to punch you in the face," she tells Jon.) These people have no dreams of pop stardom at all; they're entirely devoted to their leader, Frank (Fassbender), and his roiling electro-noise. Jon is taken aback by the great bulbous head Frank wears (at all times, it turns out), but he's soon won over. The man could be a mad genius—and also Jon's ticket into some sort of big time.
Frank brings the band to a remote lakeside cabin to work up and record some new music—"for as long as it takes," he says. It takes eight months. During this time, Jon tweets out notes on the group's progress, and posts videos of their rehearsal sessions. A growing international fan base follows along online. Soon there's an invitation for the Soronprfbs to fly to Texas to perform at the South by Southwest festival. This is Frank's big chance. Will he blow it? Does he even want it?
Deprived of facial expression, Fassbender still manages to create a character out of the inscrutable Frank. The actor reveals a previously undemonstrated flair for light slapstick, and he puts a giddy spin on his non-sequitur lines. (Asked to remove the fake head, Frank responds with "I have a certificate!"). Gyllenhaal's biting sarcasm is really funny, too, especially when directed at Gleeson's Jon—she knows that his sunny enthusiasm masks a determination to sell out the band's spiky integrity for a more pop-conscious sound. And the group's music, composed by Stephen Rennick, achieves an important balance—atonal enough to qualify as underground cacophony, but still intriguing.
The movie raises questions of art and exploitation. Are Frank's multitudinous Internet fans sincere in their acclaim for his music, or is he just a pit stop on their never-ending quest for novelty? Does it matter that Frank may be mentally unstable, or can we just accept as a gift the insular music that helps him maintain a place in the world? Frank's own view is presented in the film's most moving scene, set in an otherwise empty club, in which he and the band improvise an entrancing new song (which the group recently reprised on the Colbert show). It's simply called "I Love You All."
Was anyone really yearning for yet another teen-oriented post-apocalypse film to fill the brief interlude between last January's Divergent and the third Hunger Games movie, due out in November? Maybe, I suppose. But The Giver, based on the first of a wildly popular series of young-adult novels by Lois Lowry, is unlikely to satisfy fans of either those books or these sorts of movies. The picture is distinguished mainly by its transparent box-office calculation; and in genre terms, it does just about everything wrong.
Once again we find ourselves in a new civilization that's arisen out of the ruins of an unspecified cataclysm. This artificial society is one of "true equality" (uh oh). Its citizens are cheerful and kind; there's no more anger, no more war—but no more love or sex, either. A council of Elders, headed by Meryl Streep, has determined that all passions are inherently bad, and so they've been eradicated, along with the ability to perceive colors (?), by daily doses of a drug administered by injection machines in every home. Procreation has been radically simplified: babies are brewed up in labs and then implanted in designated Birth Mothers; after they're born, they are distributed to matched pairs of men and women. These infants can be accepted or rejected; if they're insufficient in some way—crying too much, for example—they're gently killed.
All recollection of the bad old pre-apocalypse days has been blanked out among the populace. One person, however, for reasons most murky, is given the task of retaining those memories. This is the Giver of Memory, and he alone has access to books and music and other vanished cultural pleasures. Currently holding down that job, in a mountaintop mansion high in the clouds, is Jeff Bridges (a motivating force in getting this movie made). But he's growing old, and a younger man named Jonas (Brenton Thwaites, of Maleficent) has been named the Receiver of Memory, to be committed to the Giver's instruction and to soak up all of his knowledge and memories, and carry it on.
But the Giver, in all of his wisdom, has had it with this purringly sinister new society, and his tutelage turns Jonas into a rebel. This upsets the boy's "parents" (Alexander Skarsgård, wasted, and Katie Holmes, wooden throughout) and of course Streep's head Elder. It also poses a problem for Jonas: Having discovered the concept of love under the Giver's instruction, he's now determined to pry away from the smothering Community a girl named Fiona (Odeya Rush, of We Are What We Are), for whom he feels stirrings of tenderness.
The movie has a great look, especially in the early sections, which are filmed in elegant black-and-white. Director Phillip Noyce (Salt), an accomplished action man, stages an exciting motorcyle-chase scene; cinematographer Ross Emery (The Wolverine) gives the Community a gleaming white Bakelite look that suggests an iCity of some especially sterile future; and production designer Ed Verreaux has created a few knockout environments, especially the Giver's vast library looking out on the mountain mists.
But the movie takes an awfully long time to go nowhere especially interesting, and in rather dull company. Aside from that chase, there's not a lot of action, and for romance there's just one chaste kiss. The filmmakers have tried to broaden the picture's mass-audience appeal by mixing older, established actors with fresh-faced newbies. But Streep does nothing here that we haven't seen before (and does a lot less of it), and Bridges reverts to Rooster Cogburn mode in portraying the grumbly Giver. And while one of the hopes we bring to a picture like this is for a breakthrough performance by a little-known young actor—the chance to discover a Jennifer Lawrence or Shailene Woodley—neither the goggle-eyed Thwaites nor the distinctively pretty Rush (who's admittedly given little to work with) fits that bill. It should also be noted that while Taylor Swift does appear in this movie, her presence lasts for all of maybe five minutes.
The picture ends in a very weak tease for a sequel (there are four more Lowry novels to be exploited). I wouldn't bet against this happening, but we live in hope.