Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender, and Domhnall Gleeson in “Frank.” (courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)
At first, Gleeson’s rock wannabe character is thrust into Frank’s world, though later on it’s Jon leading the charge. When one of Frank’s bandmates attempts suicide, manager Don brings in Jon in a moment of desperation before the gig. For whatever reason, Frank likes Jon’s nervous excitement and invites him to work with the band in what becomes the Chinese Democracy of cabin-in-the-woods recording sessions. The film isn’t exactly explicit about how long the perfectionist musicians spend in Ireland preparing to record their album and never really getting around to it, but the bulk of Frank takes place in this country setting. It’s long enough for Clara, the icy theremin player portrayed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, to declare war on Jon, get desperate enough to have sex with him, then go back to despising him. More importantly, it’s long enough for Jon to chronicle the sessions online through videos, tweets, and blog posts, novelty promotional efforts that ultimately garner a gig at SXSW.
What happens from there is a master class in bands falling apart under the pressures of the modern music industry. The fights that transpire make the arguments of Almost Famous seem like child’s play. When Jon reads on Vice’s music blog, Noisey, that indie pop is in at SXSW, he suggests the band shifts its sound towards commerciality and simplicity. Gripped by the fear of not finding an audience, Frank writes an erratic synth track about dancing all night — a monstrosity he calls the most likeable song of his career. Gyllenhaal’s response: “I’m not playing the fucking ukelele.” She also stabs Jon in the leg, a move he milks towards modest viral fame (700,000 YouTube views). You start to wonder: are these the soul-crushing lengths it takes to be a known band in our digital age? And if so, how are weirdos supposed to pull that off?
I won’t spoil the rest, but what transpires is sad and upsetting, until suddenly it’s not again. The way Frank puts its pieces back together, beautifully, has to do with troubled eccentrics embracing each others’ differences — something they forgot when Jon became the de facto band leader. Sort of a fitting ending for an outsider comedy: the promise of fame be damned, don’t trust the normals.