Michael Fassbender’s face appears on screen for about five minutes during Lenny Abrahamson’s new movie, Frank. The rest of the time, it’s hidden beneath a large papier-mâché head with black hair, large blue eyes and a deadpan expression – constantly worn by the enigmatic band leader. But even further off-screen, the man behind Frank’s eccentric musical ability was musical director Stephen Rennicks.
Frank follows the story of a band called the Soronprfbs, whose leader is loosely based off of Frank Sidebottom, the alter-ego of British musician Chris Sievey. The Soronprfbs' unique sound falls where '80s New Wave pop meets experimental rock, driven by the captivating lyrics sung by Fassbender. Since the group of five is so unstable, their shows have a habit of turning into unintentional performance art, often ending with members yelling at each other and storming off stage mid-song.
For Rennicks, bringing their unorthodox tunes to life was almost as big an endeavor as the making of the movie. The main task was writing the songs, which had to be outside of mainstream music without stepping over the line into the avant-garde. He pulled from his own experiences playing in French and German nightclubs with the art-punk band the Prunes in the late '80s.
“I saw a lot of much weirder bands than the Soronprfbs,” Rennicks said in a phone conversation, laughing. “All the stuff in my head, the small unknown acts, is really where it all came from.”
From there, it was about getting a feel for the characters and experimenting with sounds until he found something he imagined they would play. The movie shows the band using makeshift devices in their music. Chairs have the back spindles removed and replaced with strings. Glass bell jars, typically usually used as laboratory equipment, are hung from trees and hit like bells. The band even plays even small household items that Frank “finds inspiring,” like bendy straws and toothbrushes.
In one scene, Frank focuses on a carpet tuft that has popped out of place and, thinking out loud, turns it into an acoustic guitar song. “I had to write a piece of music that was a bit vaudevillian,” said Rennicks of the song, which struts comical lyrics like, “Is it the last tuft standing? / Or the first tuft stretching itself awake?”
In addition to writing the band’s music, Rennicks had to work with the actors on learning new instruments, compose the background music and manage live recordings of each song on set: a tricky strategy when filming a movie. A lot of movies record their songs separately, sometimes by other bands, to be dubbed in during post-production. But for Frank, the music was recorded on set while shooting the scenes.
“First, we’d get the band to play on a master take. Then we’d do multiple takes for the scene,” explained Rennicks.
Since none of the music was mimed, if the band switched up the tempo on a different take of the song, the music wouldn’t line up with what we’d see on screen. Fortunately for Rennicks, the tempo was kept consistent thanks to Carla Azar, who plays Nana, the Soronprfbs’ quiet and sullen-faced drummer.
“Carla was an absolute lynchpin,” said Rennicks. “Really the best drummer I’ve seen. She’s musical, her drumming is completely elastic, and really beautiful.”
Azar, who is normally found smiling and rocking out behind her drum kit in the Los Angeles-based experimental-rock group Autolux, had no previous acting experience, but was more than qualified for the role of Nana. Aside from performing with Autolux, she drums for Jack White’s band, and recently recorded with White on about half of the songs from his latest album, Lazaretto.
“[Abrahamson, the director] was smart enough to know they couldn’t fake drums,” said Azar.
Azar was impressed by Fassbender’s vocal performance as well. “Michael Fassbender is a natural front man. He can sing. He loves music. He can play a character that is enigmatic,” she said.
“A great lead singer and a great drummer are the most important part[s] of a band. The rest can kind of be more forgiving,” she added.
But the rest held their own, including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson and French actor/musician Francois Civil. “None of us had met before. The first day of rehearsal we all met, and it was instant chemistry,” said Azar.
Rennicks was also impressed. “Everyone got mud on their feet and I was blown away by how good these people were,” he said.
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