Director: Steve Sullivan
Producers: Steve Sullivan
Starring: Chris Sievey, Johnny Vegas, Ross Noble, John Cooper Clarke, Mark Radcliffe
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 105 mins
Some of the fondest memories I have of childhood are the Saturday mornings I spent curled up in an armchair eating cereal in my pyjamas and watching children’s TV. Back then, shows like Going Live or Ghost Train would take up the whole morning schedule, interspersing cartoons like The Raccoons and Taz-Mania amongst interviews with celebrities, performances by bands, shtick by comedians like Trevor and Simon, and crowd-pleasing puppets like Gordon the Gopher. This was the height of comfort for me and the fact that the shows were broadcast live with audible laughter from the offscreen crew gave me a real feeling of being part of something. But occasionally a disconcerting presence would invade this cosy bubble. A man in a suit with a giant papier-mache head and a nasal voice would appear and bumble around as if he were making everything up on the spot. His significance was lost on me and none of the hosts ever seemed to remove this nagging confusion by giving this enigmatic figure a proper introduction. Whichever show I chose to watch, be it Motormouth, No. 73 or What’s Up Doc?, this creepy anarchist seemed to pop up and bewilder me.
Not content with introducing an element of apprehension into my Saturday mornings, the same large-headed apparition began to make appearances on regional news shows and radio programmes, always it seemed to me without the requisite explanation of who he was and what he was doing there. At a school coffee morning I once found a pile of comics I’d never heard of called Oink!, which were sort of like Viz for younger readers. Amused by the few farts gags I skim read, I purchased the comics and took them home. Opening up the first comic on the pile later that evening I couldn’t believe my eyes. There he was again, in comic strip form! Who was this weird man? Or, perhaps more importantly, why was this weird man?!
It wasn’t until I got a bit older that I not only found out who Frank Sidebottom was but appreciated what he was doing. By this time I was a big comedy fan and having fallen under the spell of surreal acts like Vic and Bob and, later down the line, The Mighty Boosh, Frank seemed like an obvious forerunner and influence on these phenomenons. But both Vic and Bob and The Mighty Boosh went massive, taking their acts on arena tours to crowds of rowdy, excitable students. Frank Sidebottom, despite his apparent ubiquity, seemed to mainly inspire that level of dedication on a local level, with national TV struggling to know exactly what to do with him. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. There’s a lot more to the story of Frank Sidebottom or, I should say, Chris Sievey, the man beneath the head. And Steve Sullivan’s excellent documentary finally answers all the questions the younger me had about who Frank Sidebottom was while also extensively covering Sievey’s other projects that the giant head unfortunately overshadowed.
I remember when Lenny Abrahamson’s film Frank was released, my initial excitement based on the assumption that it was going to be a Frank Sidebottom biopic was quashed by the reality that Frank, despite his iconic head featuring prominently, was more an examination of the pressures of perceived genius and Michael Fassbender’s central character was just as strongly influenced by rock ‘n’ roll outsiders like Captain Beefheart and Daniel Johnston as by Sievey’s creation. But Being Frank gives me better than I could have hoped for. With access to an archive of astonishing artefacts stored in a damp cellar and which nearly got thrown out, Sullivan has beautifully pieced together a better representation of Sievey’s life and work than a potentially melodramatic dramatisation could have provided. The resulting film is very much in the spirit of Sievey’s patchwork, DIY approach to his art, imbuing the material with a far greater sense of artistry than a simple talking heads documentary. There are plenty of commentators sharing engrossing stories but crucially they are strung together using a thread of archive material and images that give the whole thing a tremendous forward momentum.
As a fan of Sievey’s terrific power pop band The Freshies, I was delighted to find that Being Frank dedicates a good 35 minutes to Sievey’s pre-Frank musical career rather than shoving it aside hastily to get to his most famous creation. As well as giving viewers the chance to hear great tracks from this largely forgotten band, this is also crucial in setting up the later developments in the story when Frank’s fame at the expense of the musical career Sievey really longed for takes its toll on the artist’s mental state. Without compromising its ultimately celebratory atmosphere, Being Frank also doesn’t fall into the trap of either over-praising or demonising Sievey. He is presented as an impulsive man, sometimes scarily so, and an early interview with his ex-wife in which she recounts how they fell in love is peppered with disconcerting details that foreshadow later developments. Sievey was obviously a man who was passionate about his main creation and when Frank took off he essentially seems to have cleaved in two, never coming out of character when the head was on and never slipping into character when it was off. That’s why there is no footage of Sievey being interviewed about his creation. As far as he was concerned, Chris was Chris and Frank was Frank. It’s the sort of obsessive approach that can spawn genius, madness or something that combines the two. Here, the latter certainly seems to be the case.
The darker corners of Being Frank help to make it a more rounded film but if it was sometimes a struggle for Sievey to accept the bizarre approximation of fame he achieved, it is never apparent in his performances. Wonderful archive footage litters the film, most of Frank performing to comparatively small but greatly appreciative, sometime fanatical, crowds. A hilarious anecdote about Frank introducing Bros at Wembley perfectly illustrates how a cult phenomenon is not always accessible to a mainstream crowd but the film beautifully intercuts photographic images of this disastrous miscalculation with video of Frank relating the story to a warm, receptive audience in a much smaller venue. His obvious comfort in this environment highlights the importance of improvisation in his act, which is why Frank was so difficult a creation to secure a TV series for. If you tried to script him too rigidly, you took away the magic but understandably few TV executives wanted to take a risk on something so unpredictable.
To say too much about the story would be to rob viewers of the pleasure of seeing it unfold themselves but ultimately Being Frank works so well because it is more than just a truly bizarre narrative. By lovingly constructing a film with a scrapbook aesthetic, Sullivan has created something more akin to an album that you go back and listen to again and again. Knowing the story isn’t to the detriment of repeat viewings because there is so much joy to be mined from seeing the snippets of Frank’s performances, hearing those songs by The Freshies and watching the largely positive emotional reaction that talking about Sievey and Frank provokes in the excellent interviewees. The film was partially funded by Kickstarter donations and its hard to imagine any of the many contributors, all of whom get a mention in the film’s closing credits, being at all disappointed by what they’ve got for their money. There will never be another Chris Sievey but projects like this keep the spirit of Frank alive. My review disc even came with a complimentary Frank Sidebottom pin badge. Nice touch!
Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story is released by Spirit Entertainment on DVD and Blu-ray on 29 April 2019. The extras include half an hour of more great stories from the film’s interviewees and a delectable selection of archival footage from Sievey’s archives.