This week’s choice for “Film Music Examined” will be Lenny Abramson’s “Frank,” which I saw at the O Cinema in the Wynwood Arts District, Miami. The film is graced with a score by Stephen Lennicks, a lesser-known Irish composer who has worked with Lenny Abramson before on countless projects. Music is so central to this film that it will be relatively easy to discuss the clear relationship between music and plot.
The story is focused on John (Domhall Gleeson), a suburbanite who has an interest, but not necessarily a talent, in songwriting. He abruptly comes across the band “Soronprbfs” whose keyboard player is attempting to drown himself in the ocean, and they quickly hire John for a gig. The gig doesn’t go well for the temperamental band members, save for the band leader and singer Frank (Michael Fassbender), a man with a large cartoon paper-mache head that he never takes off, who takes a liking to John and gives him a call to join the band as a keyboard player for good. Thinking he is roped in for only a weekend, John is carried away to a lakeside retreat to begin composing and recording an album. John attempts to swing the band in a more commercial direction, instigating internal tensions and revealing Frank’s dark past.
The bulk of the music in the film is “source” music, or music that occurs as a natural part of the scene. All of this music is written by Rennicks, containing his touch and interpretation of the drama through these songs. They are performed on screen by the actors and without much editing, adding an organic element. Thus, John’s music and the music of “Soronprbfs” are central to the film. John is interested in writing jaunty, catchy Brit-pop style music. In the beginning, he seeks inspiration from the world around him, beginning lyrics about everything from the monotony of suburbia to a woman in a red coat, internally vocalizing imaginary lyrics on the subject. John’s music is intentionally juvenile, a quality which is only exacerbated by his off-key singing voice. He is the epitome of a wanna-be suburban songwriter – we all know at least one. The music clarifies this character’s ideas about music.
The music of the “Soronprbfs,” on the other hand, is distinctively avant-garde, mixed with an odd 80’s art-rock approach. It’s an alien world for John. Their week in the studio involves belted vocals, toothbrush percussion, bird sounds and acting, and a myriad of other found-objects and field-recorded sounds. Each band member adds a quirky uniqueness to the total sound – the French guitarist and drummer provide traditional beats and rhythms but also textures, while Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an over-emoting keyboard player, buzzes and bangs away on analog synthesizers, awkwardly dancing around with her grooves. She is also very protective of her theremin. They improvise and work for eleven months before recording, fine tuning their bangs and beeps into relatively well-constructed songs with lyrics written by Frank.
Frank possesses a bizarre and spontaneous songwriting talent, devising ditties about a tuft of carpet hair and other somewhat trivial occurrences, perhaps reminding one of David Byrne’s work. Fassbenders’ strained baritone is quite bearable, surprisingly, and his magnetism on camera complements this voice well. He is not commercial, and his attempts to write “the most likeable song ever” are frantic and desperate, due in part to his mental condition. For Frank, his music acts like a shield against his past and his mental illness, just like the head he wears every hour of the day. The capstone of his output is the infectious, nearly anthemic “I Love You All” (video is above), a strange but effective way to end the story, demonstrating some sense of character development.
John is awed by this talent, attempting to take Frank’s inspiration to his own music. He produces mediocre keyboard compositions, but his own songs, as well as the pretty but poorly executed music of manager Don (Scoot McNairy), don’t make the cut, and the band is highly critical of the “merde” that John produces. Even when John believes he has a finished song, Frank and Clara commandeer the tune and add unconventional harmonic twists and textures as John slips into the background. Here we see a key theme of the film – commerciality and conventionality (John) as opposed to individuality and no-holds-barred artistry (Soronprbfs).
The film creates an awkward situation frequently found in black comedies – whether one should laugh or not, or if they should feel bad about laughing about something on screen. That is a phenomenon frequently comes up in the film, and the music plays up on this well, creating that ambiguity that makes the audience feel guilty at times about the comedic aspects of the film. Rennicks succeeds at creating this dissonance, both in the performance of John’s and the band’s songs. They are funnily awful, but also heartfelt, creating a mixed effect in the audience – there were some “aww’s” and some mixed laughs and smiles, but some of the room was silent. Therein line some of the mysteries of how the music works in the film – it is never didactic or singular in meaning, but rather just is, take it or leave it. Either you’re in for the ride or not. John is faced with that choice throughout the whole film.
Stephen Lennicks’ underscore for the drama is worthy of mention. In between the band scenes, where music fills the space, Lennicks provides an eccentric, light underscore, reminding one of Alexandre Desplat’s work with Wes Anderson on "Moonrise Kingdom" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel." He uses high bell sounds and glockenspiels, guitars and mandolins, accordions, pizzicato strings, upright bass, and other instruments of that milieu. This type of scoring, comic in nature, is easy to criticize because it sets up a simple “quirky” environment that doesn’t necessarily have an emotional undercurrent. The music is mostly used to set up exterior environments (i.e. driving to the cabin), underscore playful scenes (Frank chasing John around with a shovel), or to outline lighter interactions between characters. But it, much like Desplat’s underscores for Wes Anderson, never really touches the deeper side of the film and the disturbing nature of Frank’s condition or the band’s dysfunction. To me, this is a solid artistic choice, allowing the actors and cinematography space to breathe, as well as the “source” music of the character’s songs, to take that role. In a way, Lennicks is “underscoring” John’s and the band’s songs with his own take on the evolution of the characters and their emotional state. There is a subconscious undercurrent there – a unique way to set the stage for musical numbers in isolation (like an orchestral ritournello against a character’s inner world) rather than emotional dictation running parallel to drama. In that sense, the films’ score works without trying too hard.
Rennicks is able to add enough truly musical elements to the film, and Abrahamson has done enough research, to make this film accurate about the composition process and what its’ like to be in a band. The collaboration of these two is apparent throughout the writing and direction. In that sense, the effectiveness of its music follows. Its commentary on musical artistry and the business aspect are insightful. Recommended!