Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.
Rather than horror or sci-fi this week, let's get weird with Michael Fassbender, papier-mâché, and Trinidad James.
Unfamiliar with Trinidad James? He's the Atlanta rapper who made waves in late 2012 with "All Gold Everything." That song, taken from a self-distributed mixtape, led to a multi-million-dollar record deal with Def Jam. But the thing about James is, he hasn't made another song that any rap head who doesn't live online can name without the help of Wikipedia. Because of this, Def Jam's brass dropped him from the label's roster earlier this month. Now, James is going to release his album for free online; however, the artists featured on it shouldn't expect any forthcoming compensation, because, in James' own tweeted words, "I got no money."
One takeaway here: Trinidad James' Twitter nearly 370K Twitter follower count is a smoke screen hiding the fact that he's not able to make substantial music. And now that he's no longer on the almighty Def Jam Records, he's merely Internet famous. Another flash in the pan unable to fully take advantage of his his breakthrough moment.
Of all things, a weird new indie movie starring Michael Fassbender has brought Trinidad James' situation to mind. The movie is called Frank and it's one of the year's oddest, but also all-around best, movies so far. A funny and off-the-beaten-path love letter to eccentric artistry, director Lenny Abrahamson's film centers on Jon Burroughs (future Star Wars 7 star Domhnall Gleeson), an Office Space-like corporate drone who daydreams about someday becoming a world-famous singer and musician. He plays the keyboards and writes simple ballads about girls in red coats. A chance encounter with a struggling prog rock band named Soronprfbs results in a new gig for Jon as the keyboardist.
The band's one-of-a-kind secret weapon is its singer, referred to—like, say, Madonna or Adele—as just Frank (and played by Fassbender). For reasons at first unknown, the enigmatic Frank always wears a large papier-mâché head. He's also something of an impenetrable yet genius-status idol among Soronprfbs' members; their manager, Don (Scoot McNairy), tells Jon that "he lives all the way out there, man—in the furthest corners."
To work through their frustrations when the music's not vibing, the men in Soronprfbs wrestle; Frank, with his air of superhuman strength and charisma, handily bodies any competition. They have a safe word to stop Frank from seriously beating their asses. The safe word is "Chinchilla!" Unbeknownst to his crew-mates, Jon films their tussles and uploads the clips onto YouTube, where the views steadily rise. So much so that "Chinchilla!" grows into Soronprfbs' calling card, the way their 'fans' respond to them, like Aaron Paul to "Yeah, bitch!"
Eventually, Soronprfbs' "Chinchilla!" is little more than Trinidad James' "Popped a Molly, I'm sweatin'!"
The beautiful/sad thing about Fassbender's paper-headed Frank is that he's blissfully unaware of his band's awfulness. The sound Soronprfbs strives for lies somewhere between Radiohead and the Doors, but it sounds like junk. Frank, the resident optimist, energetically tosses superlatives and hyperbole at his group's incoherent music, but the rest of Soronprfbs knows. They're all pissed off when Jon informs them that, thanks to his social media sharing of the band's yearlong growth process, they've been invited to perform in the "New Discoveries" section of Austin's SXSW Music Festival; Frank, on the other hand, couldn't be happier. Even though Soronprfbs doesn't have any songs worth talking about, let alone playing live, Jon's social media efforts have driven his Twitter count up to 18,000 and accrued north of 700,000 views on YouTube, which, of course, means they're 'deserving' of a slot in one of the world's biggest music showcases.
Once the band arrives in Austin, Jon quickly realizes that they need to tweak their sound, lest they be met with boos, beer cans, and expletives while on stage. None of 18,000 followers have actually heard the band's music—they've just kept tabs on Jon's fish-out-of-water struggles and been captivated by that weirdo with the giant costume head. Jon pitches the idea of pop-ifying their style, which angers everyone except Frank. In the movie's funniest line, Frank responds to Jon's suggestion with, "I've always dreamed of having a band member who shares my vision of writing likable music!"
The movie's cruel, climactic joke comes when Soronprfbs, reduced to just Jon and Frank, take the SXSW stage. Jon greets the crowd, most of whom are there because they've followed his tireless social media accounts, as if he's about to bless them with the greatest rock show of their lives; they shout "Chinchilla!" in his direction. But Frank isn't feeling it. Shortly after Jon starts playing a terribly twee ballad, and the audience doesn't exactly erupt into celebratory applause, Frank, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, falls to the ground and says, "The music is shit. The music is shit." In that moment, Jon starts understanding a harsh truth: just because his Twitter game is strong doesn't mean he's good. Eventually, the world sees through hashtag-weighted imbalances. That day of reckoning just arrives much sooner for Jon and Soronprfbs than it does for others.
Most real-life recording artists who mirror Frank's fictional band's retweets-and-favorites-over-substance M.O. haven't experienced that level of public-humiliation-cum-uncomfortable-self-realization. They may never, either. Chances are, Trinidad James won't be seeing this new Michael Fassbender movie anytime soon. But in this age where social media dominance is often viewed as a measuring stick for what's worthwhile, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that six- to seven-figure follower tallies don't always signify quality art.
To that end, Frank is a cautionary tale for every "here today, gone in two months" musical acts. Def Jam's execs should've handed Trinidad James a screener DVD copy of it on his way out their door.
Frank is in theaters today, via Magnolia Pictures.