Monday, 30 June 2014

Frank: The Movie

I have no idea how anyone writes songs. I can extemporise instrumental music on the guitar, piano and recorder; I can write plays, have written poems and stories; I have a glimpse at what creative mathematics and philosophy are about; I take reasonable photographs and can put together a meal from whatever’s in the kitchen. But I have NO IDEA how Curt Cobain wrote Smells Like Teen Spirit.

None. Can’t fathom it. (I can pick up a guitar and "just play" something. Improvisation / extemporisation I can do: song-writing? Composing to order? Not a hope.)

The pianist in Frank could be me - except he can do social media better than I can’t at all, and gets to make hay with a girl who looks just like Maggie Gyllenhall. It has the funniest joke I’ve heard all year

“I play keyboards”
“Can you play C, F and G?”
“You’re in”

I rolled in the aisle.

Frank is sold as a comedy, and who knows it may even have been written and performed as one. But inside it is a portrayal of the creative process and people. The key scene, the one that tells you that Frank and his weird band are actually the real thing, is right at the end. (Spoiler alert). Robbed of his papier-mâché head, revealed as the grown-up version of the troubled child that he was, he walks into the dingy bar his band have a gig at - playing to four people who can’t hear them. Frank looks around and picks features of the room and starts to recite them, which turns into a kind of chorus, which the band pick up on and within three choruses are in full flight, at once backing and soloing over Frank’s song. And it’s good, for its genre. Jam and Lewis it ain’t, but if you’re into that stuff, you’ll know it’s good. (it’s not great, but it’s good.) It’s better than I could do.

And in the meantime, our narrator, who fell in with them by accident, promoted them through You Tube and Twitter, and fails to write a single worthwhile bar of music throughout the movie, leaves, having understood that he’s not a creative musician, but at best a guy who knows when to play C, F and G.

The process that the movie shows us is hermetic (the band don’t want to be a success, and two of them only speak French), obsessive (they take nearly a year to prepare an album that never gets released), and quirky (scenes of recording natural noises and other things). That’s one way of creating ideas and music, but it’s not the only one. At the other extreme is what the great jazz musicians did: play all the time, listen to other people when you’re not playing, and keep experimenting with changes. What happens if we do this, or that? What happens when I get three of the greatest improvising musicians in history in a church and give them some chords to work off? (Hint: Kind of Blue. We just didn’t know that Coltrane, Adderley and Evans were that good then.)

Frank suggests that creative people are odd if not actually weird, and that’s a common enough idea, but it’s an excuse. For the audience. Creativity takes knowledge, skill and application, the willingness to experiment and be wrong, and, of course, a lot of familiarity with what others are doing. It’s hard work and requires a certain amount of single-mindedness, or a lot of opportunities to experiment (as in “I thought I’d try putting prunes in the stew this time”). That’s not likely for people whose time fritters away on conference calls, meetings, making up slide decks, BS-ing in the pub, zoning out on the train and “dealing” with other peoples’ insecurities and neediness. But creative people spend more time futzing, going down blind alleys and pursuing impossible pet projects than anyone thinks.

One thing the movie is pretty darn clear about. It’s better to be the band playing doleful versions of cowboys songs in a nowhere bar than it is to be the people drinking at the bar. Or the piano player who brings the band-leader back to join them. And with that, I do not disagree.

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