Being Frank About Mental Illness.

What must now be a few years ago, I wrote a blog entitled "Mediocrities of the World, I Absolve You." It was about the often seen stereotype of people with mental illness also being brilliant or talented in some way - in essence, about the cliché concerning where genius ends and madness begins, or vice versa. My conclusion in that blog was that it was a stereotype like any other, having little to do with the reality of what the majority of people with mental ill health experience. I suggested that such representations of mental illness could then be just as damaging as other stereotypes, as they don't leave much room for those who aren't some kind of genius.
However, having recently watched the film, "Frank", director Lenny Abrahamson's examination of a rock band headed by a guru-like and enigmatic front man, I think I've changed my mind somewhat.
The film is narrated from the perspective of Jon Burroughs, a young wannabe pop star who really isn't that good a musician. However, he gets the chance to play keyboards for the unpronounceable Soronprfbs when their own keyboard player attempts to kill himself, and through this meets the band's lead singer, Frank. Jon becomes intrigued by Frank and his seemingly innate musical ability. But this isn't the only reason for his interest, because Frank also happens to wear a giant, papier-mache head which obscures his real face. At one point Jon and Frank take to communicating by describing their facial expressions to each other.
From this you might have guessed that the character of Frank was in part inspired by the comedian and musician Frank Sidebottom, who wore a similar "mask". It must be remembered that this isn't the Frank Sidebottom story, though, and when the band is shown making their album, an often hilarious portrayal of the creative process, it becomes clear that other inspirations were at work in creating Frank's character. Among those mentioned by reviewers are Captain Beefheart, specifically during the making of "Trout Mask Replica", and also the musician Daniel Johnston who himself had experience of mental ill health.
Indeed, when Jon begins to push the band to become more popular by posting things about them on social media, their musical integrity begins to suffer, other members of the band leave, and during a tour in America, Frank begins to show signs of the strain of it all, withdraws into himself, and eventually appears to have some kind of mental breakdown and runs away. It's a testament to the performance of Michael Fassbender, who plays Frank, that he manages to get all this across while wearing the papier-mâché head, which, to my mind at least, becomes oddly expressive when Frank begins to succumb to the stresses of popularity.
Jon eventually finds Frank back at his parents house where he learns that he does in fact have a mental illness. He says to his parents that this must be where his musical genius comes from, that all the suffering has led him to produce great art. In a dispelling of the usual stereotype, though, Frank's parents simply say that, no, he had always been musically gifted, and that, if anything, his illness had slowed him down. At the end of the film, Frank is reunited with the rest of the band, this time without Jon, who realises the part he played in all that went wrong, and they sing one final song, the oddly affecting "I Love You All", which you can hear by simply clicking on the link.
In conclusion, the film is at times hilarious, at times poignant in its portrayal of mental illness and its possible links to creativity, with the issues being so deftly handled that one can't complain. So, while I may want to absolve the mediocrities of the world, perhaps, after all, the world is just more interesting and beautiful with characters like Frank in it.  


Dixie@dcrelief said…
Hi David.
That must be some film. I checked out your link, and found a few more to listen to. Later I'd like to listen to the interview of several actors from it, time permitting today.
Strangely the paper head didn't faze me; as if wearing one were perfectly natural. Then again, it was for him.
I recall your post, "Mediocrities...," and the then drawn conclusion. I can certainly understand the change of heart now too. Having not seen the film but reading what the parents had to say, I am able to agree with them. I'm inclined to think my own issues slow me down quite a bit. Am I genius? Does it matter?
Fabulous post, David!
David said…
Hi Dixie,
Thanks for your comment.
I think if you get to see the film in its entirety, you'll be amazed at how Michael Fassbender (who plays Frank) manages to put in such a great performance when, for most of the film, we can't even see his face. And indeed, it does seem perfectly natural (to Frank at least!).
As for things slowing you down, I've always thought of you as a kind of genius of blogland!
Very Best Wishes, Dixie,
from your fellow blogging genius,
Dixie@dcrelief said…
Hi David.
Thanks for thinking of me as a kind of genius in blogland. Thanks funny.

I really wanted to stop back by and say it has taken me a bit to catch the pun of your article's title. I suppose that might cost me that 'genius' notation of earlier! That's even funnier! Hope you are well.

Most sincerely,
David said…
Hi Dixie,
Sorry for not getting back to you sooner, and I'm happy that you finally got the pun in my blog title! If it's any consolation, I still think of you as a genius of blogland!
Very Best Wishes,

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