Sunday, February 08, 2015

Penny Thoughts ‘15—Frank (2014) ***½

R. 95 min.
Director: Leonard Abrahamson
Writers: Jon Ronson, Peter Straughan
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, François Civil, Clara Azar, Michael Fassbender

OK. So, tonight is the Grammy’s. “Frank” is a movie about a band that would most likely never win a Grammy or even be invited, for that matter. But, let’s give it a whirl anyway.

So, there’s this kid who dreams of being a musician. He works his cubicle job during the day and waits in his room for inspiration to write songs whenever he’s not at work. I don’t think that’s really how it works, and from the fact that most of the songs he’s inspired to write are actually other songs that he’s heard from popular bands, well… I’m guessing I’m right.

Anyway, fate intervenes and he witnesses as scene during which the keyboardist of an underground band playing in his town that evening goes off his gourd and tries to drown himself in the ocean. The manager ends up asking this kid to join the band for their gig that night to fill in. The gig doesn’t go well. The band members are hostile toward the kid, who does actually know how to play but is flabbergasted by the band’s lead singer, Frank who wears a giant fake head on stage. They play one song and walk off stage, telling the kid to get lost as if their failed gig was his fault.

A few days later the kid gets a call from the manager again. Apparently, the lead singer took a liking to the kid and wants him to join them on their new project. The kid takes a few weeks off work and jumps in their van. He’s shocked to learn the lead singer wears the fake head all the time, literally. He’s doubly shocked to learn they aren’t going on a tour; they’ve rented a cabin in the woods to hash out their new album.

They are avant garde in everything. They don’t have any songs planned. They have an exercise regiment. They experiment constantly. It dawns on the kid that this isn’t going to take a few weeks; it’s going to take months. So he begins to video their sessions and post them to YouTube. Soon the band has a following and prospects for actual listeners. The lead singer’s mind is blown by this development and although he has run the show up to this point he appears to be much more open to new prospects then the rest of the band. Their newfound popularity gets them invited to SXSW, and well, let’s just say they don’t do well in front of actual people.

Well, that’s a good synopsis, Andy, but so what? I think this strange tale is a good example of how musicians think. To go down this path of making art noise and asking people to listen to it is a somewhat egotistical proposition. And yet, what leads musicians to make this career decision often has very little to do with ego. Music speaks to these people, but in a different way than it does to those of us who simply consume the music. Much of a musician’s drive is selfish, and to place that selfishness within a structure in which a bunch of selfish people have to come together and produce art as a single unit requires a certain hubris that can become volatile when a new element is introduced.

I believe the fake head is a symbol of the structure the group needs to produce their almost magical music together. The new kid represents the outside influences on musicians—fans, money, success, fame, other music groups and styles—which can get in the way of that selfish but necessary process of making their art. I suppose this could be wrong, not being a musician myself. I do believe this movie will play better for musicians than it will your mainstream movie audiences, because it is very odd indeed.

It’s also much more layered than I’ve presented it here. Certainly it isn’t just about being selfish for art or anything like that. That’s just something I’ve keyed into here. There are issues about childhood that enter into the process, which I think is a key for most musicians because most of us develop our passion for music at an early age. Even the fans develop their taste for music in their childhoods, so there’s a key element to music and how it is made and consumed that has its foundation in childhood. The film touches upon that link, but I don’t feel it explores it as deeply as it could.

Thematically, the film also touches upon an element I identified in the movie “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, of how conflict will rise up even from good intentions. The Doobie Brothers don’t break up because they’re sick of their success and of making money and of having fans. They don’t even necessarily break up because they don’t like each other any more or because they hate each other’s music. But, there comes a point when the circumstances to lead to something that works no longer exist. Then it must be decided whether to embrace the conflict or move on. Moving on is usually the safer bet in terms of your humanity, and where is music without humanity? 

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