Netflix picks: Frank

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Lenny Abrahamson's 2014 film, Frank, is a fever dream experienced secondhand ("Shuttered doors and troubadours," Reverb, Sep. 10). It's the kind of dream that leaves you feeling vaguely guilty when you wake up. But on the way, it's fun, fascinating and its own kind of weird.

One of the best things about Frank is focal character Jon Burroughs (Domnhall Gleeson), a young, struggling songwriter with a day job in an office. He spends more time tweeting about songwriting than doing it. (Young people nowadays, am I right?) But he gets lucky when a keyboard player in an experimental pop band tries to drown himself in the ocean. Burroughs is in the right place at the right time, and the Soronpfrbs’ band manager, Don (Scoot McNairy), invites him to cover keyboards for their gig that night. One week later, Burroughs is on an island recording an album with the band.

On the island, Burroughs finally talks to the titular Frank (Michael Fassbender), the lead singer and main songwriter for the Soronprfbs, who's always wearing a huge papier-mâché head, even in the shower. He can write a song about anything — even a tuft of fabric sticking out of a chair — and his recording habits are stranger yet. In a direct tribute to Don Van Vliet of Captain Beefheart fame, Frank puts the band through strenuous and cult-like musical and non-musical exercises before recording the album in a day.

Burroughs grows more and more frustrated by the intense recording process and constant abuse from Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Frank's blunt, violent partner and synthesizer/theremin player. As usual, he turns to social media, secretly creating a web presence for the band. And though his bland Brit-pop compositions are shut down or changed beyond recognition, and none of his songs wind up on the record, he lands a spot for the Soronprfbs at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

Gleeson's character is so blandly pleasant and normal that the audience doesn't realize he's the antagonist until it's too late. He does nothing unreasonable or outlandish, but shows himself to be self-centered and thoughtless as the story develops. In time, it’s easy to hope Clara will make good on her promise to stab him if things go wrong in Texas.

For all of the hilarious weirdness, this movie isn't afraid to get its hands dirty with serious matters. Burroughs wants to be a musician, but he doesn't know what it takes — maybe not even what being a musician means. He credits genius to trauma and mental illness, and makes a spectacle and a mockery of his bandmates while trying to gain exposure. His attitudes and behavior raise a lot of questions, and there aren't any easy answers to be found, for him nor or the audience.

Both the Soronprfbs' music and Burroughs' crappy little songs were written by Stephen Rennicks and performed live by the cast — no stunt musicians, no overdubs. Mind, this is no musical, but even a fake band needs a few songs to play. While they were promoting the movie, the actors performed a few concerts as the Soronprfbs, including a spot on the Colbert Report playing the heart-breaking closing song “I Love You All.” Fassbender even wore Frank's fake head.

Frank exists in a strange place between funny and sad. Strong performances from Fassbender, Gleeson, Gyllenhaal and McNairy keep it all fresh and in perspective. Fassbender in particular deserves praise for acting so well behind a face with one expression.

Congratulations, you're one movie closer to justifying that $8.99 a month.

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