What Frank Says About Music
‘Frank is a film full of music and about music,’ says its director, Lenny Abrahamson. The director does not exaggerate: Frank has the ingredients to change the way we think about music, as if taking a power-hose to some of the most lingering myths about it – the psychology of music’s creation, perception and dissemination. Warning: this article is full of spoilers, so if you haven’t yet seen Frank, you might like to revisit later.
Frank adapts the story of real-life musician Frank Sidebottom, who was active in England in the 1980s and early 1990s. In Abrahamson’s film, the now-American Frank (Michael Fassbender), who wears a mask for almost the entire film, is on tour in England with his band – the unpronouncable Soronprfbs. They lose their keyboard player and pick up the young, innocent and clean-cut Jon as a replacement before heading off to a remote cabin in Ireland to record their new album. The film later moves to Texas, where the band and Frank’s collapse reaches its conclusion.
Myth #1: Artists Project True Versions of Themselves
In the opening scenes of Frank, we see Jon coming home from his job in a large open-plan office. Just in the door of his parents’ house, he rushes upstairs to write down a tune he’s been humming on the way home. He realises that the fruit of his inspiration is in fact a Madness song. In frustration, Jon turns to his computer and Tweets something to the effect that he has been writing songs all day and is #livingthedream.
That musicians – from hopeful bedroom producers like Jon to established artists with their own PR teams – project versions of themselves that are far from their actual experience is hardly surprising. However, Jon’s mistelling of events through the medium of Twitter throughout the film, acting in counterpoint to the increasing disintegration of the band, points to the absurdity of this dual existence that every musician, to some extent, leads.
With everyone on-message, broadcasting positive stories, where does that leave space for the downward ebbs? Making music is necessarily hard, frequently frustrating and involves large measures of failure. How false an image of a creative life do we leave if our documentation of it consists solely of ‘excited to be working with’ and ‘best rehearsal ever’? Or conversely, suppose we might admit, from time to time, that our collaborators are driving us insane, and that the bass player picked a fight with the singer.
Myth #2: Infinite Time Leads to the Best Results
The idea behind the Soronprfbs’s Irish hideout is to write a new album, and they have as long as it takes – much enabled by Jon’s inheritance when the money runs dry. The process is slow and probing, steered by Frank’s unorthodox leadership – the band spend the first period making field recordings; Frank’s impassioned rehearsal coaching directs Jon to figuratively and musically lay an egg, though it seems he might almost expect this literally.
Eventually, after what seems an eternity, and countless scrapped attempts, the album is complete, performed and recorded directly onto tape. Other than Frank’s final acceptance of the work, there is nothing to suggest that this musical outcome is any better than the previous ones – it’s simply the latest result, and the one deemed right in that moment. There seems a sense of anticlimax as the band listen to the album through, and the material from the album, not to mention its release, never really features after this point in the film. After months of work – work that encourages the instability of its creators – the result seems expendable.
Parkinson’s law – that work expands to fill the time available – seems a crude thing to apply to the process of writing and recording music. After all, the music rarely comes together in a straight line, and the best material can come from slow, meandering methods, ones which allow for accidents and, crucially, throwing things out. However, Frank shows there is something to be said for a deadline and a structured routine. It wouldn’t have made for a good film, but I suspect that, had Frank and his band had just a couple of months to come up with the new album, the result might have been much the same, minus fatalities.
Myth #3: Everything Can Be Mainstream
Much to the aggressive opposition of the synth player Clara (who seems to be repulsed by the very idea of an audience), and instigated by the more industry-savvy Jon (who disseminates videos of the band’s rehearsals on YouTube), Frank and the band end up at the showcase festival South by South West, held in Austin, Texas, with destructive consequences. Jon encourages Frank to compromise a little on the more obscure edges of his music and to move towards the mainstream in order to soften the SXSW audiences; as Frank free-falls into an obsessive attempt to create ‘likeable music’, his sense of himself seems to evaporate before a single note is played on stage.
Jon steps too far in his last desperate attempt to sweeten Frank’s act, bulldozing Frank’s music with his own four-square guitar songs. The tale of Frank’s flirtation with the mainstream paints quite a clear picture of the relationship between what we want to do as musicians and what we think others want us to do. Not only does ‘likeable music’ appear to be a totally futile pursuit, but the cleaning up of music to fit into the mainstream appears to diminish the creator’s confidence and ability to work – as well as taking away from the interest of the music. Frank is very much a unique artist and the music he creates with his band is genuinely brilliant (the credit goes to Stephen Rennicks for the film); he and his kindred spirits should be encouraged to stay outside the mainstream until it comes to them.
Myth #4: Song Subjects Matter
Jon worries that he lacks the experience in life to write good lyrics – and the lyrics to his own songs are truly woeful. Conversely, there’s a telling scene in which Frank picks up a guitar and improvises a song about a tuft in a carpet. A scene in the final moments of the film – set in a run-down bar somewhere in Austin – is the film’s real jewel, and the first moment where we really sense that Frank is as good at what he does as is supposed.
Frank starts mumbling observations about the bar: the state of the toilets, the light, the clientele – the details are meaningfully forgettable. He moves over to where the the remnants of his band is playing, picks up the microphone and effortlessly spins the same words into song. It’s a subtly virtuosic finale to the film, and the message for songwriters is clear: it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’ve been, but it matters if you can take the mundane and make it beautiful.
Myth #5: Mental Ill-Health is a Prerequisite for Good Work
Early in the film, Jon discovers that the band’s manager and recording engineer, Don, was a former resident of a mental institution; Jon soon makes the assumption that the entire band shares the same history – and he could be forgiven for reading a catalogue of illnesses into the band members’ wildly erratic behaviour. To the film’s credit, the band’s neuroses are never glamourised, and the characters’ real illnesses are shown to have brutal effects.
There is a key scene in Frank’s parents’ house in Bluff, Kansas. When everything fell apart in Austin, Frank returned here – maskless and unable to write music anymore. The expected thing here would be for the film to capitalise on the divide been Frank’s world of chaos and the quiet, ordinary world of his parents; in another film his parents would be confused, unable to comprehend Frank’s life or condition.
But Frank’s father speaks plainly to the visiting Jon: Frank is mentally ill, they have known this since his youth, and it is Frank’s illness that hampers his creativity rather than fuels it. In this short scene, one of the most pervasive myths about mental illness and music is dismantled: mental illness, untreated, is not a reservoir of creative energy, but a barrier to the full realisation of a talented musician.