"Frank" opens with a young musician, Jon, walking through town looking for inspiration. He grabs at random images -- women, children, the beach -- but the results are embarrassingly banal. Suddenly inspired, he races home to write down a melody. "Madness," he sighs. He has accidentally plagiarized the band's 1981 hit "It Must Be Love."
This opening sequence, one of the funniest depictions of creative struggle in any movie, tells us we're in for a treat with "Frank." It's a small-scale but insightful story about art, genius, idolatry and the sinister allure of fame, all set against the backdrop of today's indie-rock scene. Where else would a naif like Jon become mesmerized by an unstable rock singer who wears an enormous fiberglass head, even when offstage?
That would be Frank, played by an unrecognizable (obviously) Michael Fassbender. When Frank's willfully bizarre band, the Soronprfbs, arrive in town, Jon (a terrific Domnhall Gleeson) becomes their new keyboardist. The last one went insane, and no wonder: The bassist speaks only French, the drummer speaks not at all, and the thereminist (look it up) is a ball of rage named Clara, played by a glowering Maggie Gyllenhaal. Their manager, Don (Scoot McNairy), may be the most damaged of all. Nevertheless, Jon has secret plans to ride this band to fame and fortune.
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson and co-written by Peter Straughan and Jon Ronson, "Frank" has a wry sense of humor, the ring of authenticity and glimmers of genuine wisdom. It's inspired by Ronson's stint playing with Frank Sidebottom (aka the late Chris Sievey), who indeed performed wearing a fiberglass head. This version of Frank resembles musicians like Daniel Johnston and Roky Erickson, whose genius seemed inseparable from their madness, but the film commendably pokes a hole in that dangerous myth. "What's going on inside that head, inside that head?" Jon wonders. The answer is a minor revelation, much like the movie itself.
PLOT The semi-true story of an eccentric musician who wears an enormous fiberglass head.
RATING R (language, sexuality)
CAST Michael Fassbender, Domnhall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal
BOTTOM LINE Required viewing for indie-rock fans, who will recognize many an idol, and perhaps themselves, in the characters.