Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, Written by Jon Ronson, Peter Straughan (screenplay)
I was disappointed to miss this at the cinemas. It was a fair wait but it was worth it. It said so many things: about conforming, whether musically or socially – the fear of being ‘conventional’, ‘normal’ – and the opposite of that: the basic human condition to feel socially accepted. It showed the lengths people will go to pursue their artistic dreams, whether they are truly great, or whether they are in denial about their creation or their supposed greatness. It shows the dark sides of what people will do to get want only they want, whether they are aware of their impact on others or not. Most importantly though, this is of course about the mysterious and truly unique Frank (Fassbender), who wear a giant (cardboard?) head, covering his face on a permanent basis. Frank’s eclectic band is forced into a situation where they suddenly are in need of new keyboard player. Enter Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a young aspiring keyboardist who joins the band.
Firstly I’d to point that the ‘head’ Frank wears during this film is far from a gimmick, and in a way is an exaggeration of us all; most of us wear a mask of some kind to get through each day. How often do you reply “I’m depressed, thanks,” if asked how you are, and that is how you feel? His character also represents many elements of the human condition: there are moments where his sanity doesn’t seem in doubt, especially when he talks with and befriends Jon, where at other times one can’t help but wonder.Regardless, it is clear that is is a good person.
Would people stare and point at a person like this? Is that what Frank wants? There are countless occasions where Frank is erratic and almost convulsing, yet the music he is creating defy his actions. The character of Frank is truly unique, a person anyone would love to know, and it has nothing to do with his head. The movie is almost infinitely quotable in the semi-philosophical things Frank has to say about music, art, emotion, and the human urge to succeed.
Maggie Gyllenhaal does one of the finest jobs I have seen her perform as Clara, a member of the band who seems to despise Jon from the very beginning. From the beginning we can see that she and Frank have a unique and complicated relationship of some kind. We also have Don, Scoot McNairy playing a friendly but slightly insane man who looks out for Jon for the most part, but is obviously not a content person. He plays his troubled but caring character well. We also have the drummer Nana (Carla Azar, a talented musician and drummer from the US), who has minimal dialogue, but certainly makes up for this in her mere presence, especially when playing her subtle rhythms behind the kit. The guitarist is played by François Civil, a young French actor who has just entered into the acting world it seems. He speaks almost the entire movie, often directly to Jon, in French. Without any translation. His occasional bursts of English though sound clear, though it is never confirmed nor denied if either he can speak English, or if in fact the rest of the group know French! Civil does an excellent job in creating an awkward tension almost every time he spoke, in fact, the whole cast were excellent in this regard.
The band’s sound is extreme, and the concept of making music that other people will enjoy is something that is foreign to Frank. He is also a perfectionist, believing that it is necessary to push everyone to their furthest corners. The rest of the group trust in Frank, so Jon follows suit and remains in the band, despite conflicting opinions, and pushes himself to the furthest corners he can find within. He doesn’t seem to know why, but he is drawn to this mystique of Frank. They connect.
At one point in the film, Jon asks about Frank’s past, which he frankly shares: a miserable childhood and a stint in a mental institution. As Frank walks away from Jon, Jon wonders to himself something like “where is my miserable childhood, my mental institution?”, falling under the false impression that great music, great art, must come from emotional suffering and pain. As Frank pushes the band harder, and they spend month after month recording their album, and Jon begins to believe that this experience itself is his ‘mental hospital’, his way to find the furthest corners..
At this point, where the group has spent eleven months together in the same house, emotions are running wild and unexpected sequences occur on an almost constant basis. Yet this somehow drives the band forward, and Frank proves he is more than just a pretty face by providing the catalyst for creative explosions. The highs and lows of working closely with multiple musicians are shown in equal parts; one scene will demonstrate the way nothing can turn into something beautiful and heartwarming; music is a universal language and an unique way of communication. On the other hand, this movie does not pull any punches regarding the pressure cooker of recording an album, for over eleven months, cooped up with the same people, working with them every day without reprise.
Jon however has a plan, he has been working hard in private to guarantee success. But is he doing this for the band, or for himself? Or, is he doing it for Frank? The two continue to develop a unique relationship as Jon slowly begins to earn tiny drops of respect amongst the rest of the band (bar Carla) and gradually builds a backbone when dealing with the other members, who still see him as an unwelcome stranger. These sequence events are the catalyst for an unpredictable, climactic final act.
All this tension and conflict is due to creative differences, but not in the stereotypical way a band would normally disagree. The relationship between Frank and the rest of the band is intriguing at the very least, and with the exception of Carla, this relationship is almost entirely musical. They understand what Frank wants to hear, they can feed off his energy. Needless to say then, this film features some extraordinary music, from abrasive, abstract songs and jam sessions to some hauntingly beautiful songs. Fassbender isn’t extraordinary – he is behind a mask – but the way threw himself into his vocal performances, and the voice he possesses, could not have fit his character better.
I loved this movie and personally found it somewhat inspiring…. in an odd way. I am a semi-musician (a drummer) so the sense of claustrophobia within the recording spaces is something I can relate to. Additionally, what really made this movie stand out was the way it seamlessly and effortlessly transcended genres. It deftly moves from breaking your heart to causing laughter at the darkest of comedy, often in the same scene. This is a movie not just about music, not just about a front-man who dons a giant head. Not only does this piece comment on the true intentions of some people when their dedication is strong, or suspect; but also their subsequent actions that speak louder than their original intentions, revealing a new aspect to their personality. At its heart, beneath all the layers, is a movie of real human emotion, of hopes and dreams that we all have, and the complex relationships that we all seek for so many different reasons.
4/5 – A unique movie for many a reason