Sean K. Cureton

Deep Cut, Or Likable Hit?

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on February 14, 2015 at 11:42 am
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Frank (2014)
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Netflix Rating: Really Liked It

Frank is the semi-autobiographical narrative of true events as told by Jon Ronson, the Welsh journalist whose gonzo journalistic exploits were previously adapted into the 2004 film The Men Who Stare at Goats, and whose script provides the details for Frank’s correspondingly bizarre happenings. Directed by Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson, Frank tells the story of The Soronprfbs, an experimental, alternative rock band led by the enigmatic titular figure, a singer-songwriter whose singular insanity is often occluded by the large papier-mache head that he has indefinitely affixed over his own, a fictional character based on Frank Sidebottom, the comic creation of the late stand up performer Chris Sievey. With a premise that could have easily devolved into gimmick based theatrics is handled by Abrahamson with a deft subtlety, Frank’s initial humor and off-color satire evolving into a dark reflection on the otherwise unremarkable who aspire towards the entirely unearned acclaim of the social celebrity. In the film’s script, Jon Burroughs, Ronson’s fictional counterpart, is a young, twenty something socialite intent on becoming a trending social media topic online who opportunistically takes to leeching off of the questionable talents of Frank, a man whose on grasp of reality is as tenuous as that of Burroughs’ own. As the young upstart ingratiates himself into the creative world of the band, his false pretenses of celebrity are given the semblance of tangibility from a tepid pool of followers on Twitter, and Burroughs’ selfish ambition begins to shape the course of the band, suffocating Frank in a bubble of hype and notoriety in the process, leaving little room for what little conception of self he still possesses, his art dependent in large part on the enablement of a madness inherently selfless and ironically disinterested in celebrity altogether.

If art is dependent on the selflessly possessed, then fame is the realm of the selfishly dispossessed, the former instilled with the ability to create, the latter with the willingness to exploit, each as dependent on the other when it comes to producing commercially viable art whose byproduct is the celebrity that the former abhors and the latter is consumed in pursuing. For all intents and purposes, within the world of popular music there can’t be one without the other, a musical outfit’s vitality equally dependent on the artistically destabilizing as it is on entrepreneurial conformity. Where Burroughs’ is the film’s unofficial manager, pushing the Soronprfbs towards the mainstream music scene personified in Ronson’s script by the SXSW music festival, Frank is the beating heart, willing to keep pace with an internal rhythm entirely uninterested in the complacency of the three and a half minute pop song. Frank and Burroughs are thus in diametric opposition to one another in Abrahamson’s film, the incongruity of their individual characters forced to confront one another within the industry of the music business, yin and yang vying for autonomous control over the other, while being simultaneously dependent on the other’s more desirable character traits for the sake of personal wholeness. Burroughs can’t write a song that holds any aural resonance, and Frank can’t compose anything that isn’t conceptually dissonant, a truly likable hit forever out of reach for a band whose very name excludes the use of any vowels, rendering themselves an entity that is as verbally unpronounceable as they are commercially unviable.

Ronson’s willingness to lampoon his own experiences with the real life Frank Sidebottom as an act of self-aggrandizing charlatanism is telling, lending the film much of its moral impetus, Abrahamson’s directorial gaze accordingly focused on the pitfalls of celebrity and fame within artistic cultural discussion. Abrahamson’s Frank is empathetically drawn, his pain and emotional instability unsettling at first glance, only to become more and more familiar with each passing frame, his isolationism in dire contrast to Burroughs’, the one alone due to personal necessity and the other due to a lack of personal character, Frank enigmatically tangible, Burroughs coherently insubstantial. Where Frank’s artistic voice is incomprehensibly ambitious, Burroughs’ is familiar to the point of being redundant, Ronson’s script getting at the adolescent fantasy of those who aspire to an individualism that they lack the very understanding of, their attempted assimilation into creative expression dulled by a lack of imagination indicative of the ethos of the generation born into the age of the internet celebrity, raised on disposable images permanently posted and broadcast online indefinitely, however irrelevantly inconspicuous they may be. Burroughs’ attempt to inhabit the voice of Frank through artificial assimilation via the creation of various social media accounts for the band previously non-existent is akin to the annexation of indigenously inhabited lands, utterly without precedent and meaning to the parties most affected, while benefitting those with no claim to a reward of any kind. While the film never attempts an outright indictment of the social media generation, its disease and dissatisfaction with the same lends Frank much of its humor and rhetorical resonance, Ronson’s ability to self-diagnose his own neuroses one of the film’s greatest strengths, the other being Abrahamson’s ability to navigate the complications of portraying characters as potentially broad and unappealing as those presented in the script, the Frank who lends his name to the film’s title respectfully engaged with by both parties.

Instead of listlessly dismissing its heroes to deridingly composed visual gags or contentiously conceived dramatics constructed to ridicule, the humor in Frank arises from a deeply felt love for its chosen subject, Lenny Abrahamson decidedly engaged in celebrating the very un-celebrity of the Frank character. Abrahamson’s ability to take an outlandish character from real life and transpose him into a film with an equally outlandish premise and consequentially craft one of the most moving studies on the intersection of art and celebrity is Frank’s greatest feat of accomplishment, however disorienting and distracting its concept might be to a mainstream audience. In watching Ronson’s Burroughs onscreen interact with a fictional interpretation of the historically based Chris Sievey persona, the viewer is allowed entry into a world of wildly distorted artistry, the creation of personally expressive content opened up to the satire of culturally conscious critique, the script’s fictive embellishments dressing on a very rich and decadent cake of broad social indictment. Frank is summarily humorous, yet abounds in small moments of melancholic tragedy, clarifying some of the more surrealistic gags with a profound resonance viscerally felt, the film’s tortured artist tactfully treated with the utmost respect and genuine sympathy. An oddball comedy of sorts, Frank is a film about art that never shies away from the personal, simultaneously sounding like a deep cut as well as the likable hit off of your very favorite LP.

Frank is available on Netflix Instant View, and is My Movies on Netflix: Recommendation of the Week.

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