Mancunian musician, artist and comedian Chris Sievey, the man behind the papier-mâché-headed pop-star Frank Sidebottom, was an inspired obsessive from the get go. Early in director Steve Sullivan’s new documentary Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story, friends recount a boyhood Subbuteo set-up complete with homemade tickets, match-day programmes and corporate hospitality. Promising a look inside Frank’s head (spoiler: it’s sweat and foam), Sullivan uses contemporary interviews and a treasure trove of archive footage to show how Sievey channeled this fastidious creativity into one of British comedy’s most beloved cult characters.
The film takes its time to lay the groundwork, starting with what would become Sievey’s lifelong obsession with The Beatles, formative experiments with LSD and his early experiences as a musician as the driving force in The Freshies. Positioned in opposition to darker-minded post-punk bands, The Freshies had nearly moment when their single I’m in Love with the Girl on the Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk missed out on a crucial Top of the Pops slot due to a technician’s strike. Arriving in 1984, Frank Sidebottom was conceived as the band’s superfan, a cheerful 35-year-old man trapped in perpetual adolescence, still living at home with his mother in Timperley.
“I never spoke to Frank and got Chris…there was a schizophrenia involved.” Frank took off, progressing from slots at The Freshies gigs, to solo music and comedy performances that saw him land slots on Saturday morning children’s television. There was Frank’s ventriloquist puppet Little Frank (a genius gambit given that Frank himself was essentially a puppet for Sievey), a real life Sunday League football team named Big Shorts FC, as well as records and a comic book. Each venture, no matter how lucrative, was pursued with the same detail-obsessed verve as the younger Sievey’s Subbuteo matches.
“I never spoke to Frank and got Chris…there was a schizophrenia involved.”
For commentary, the documentary wheels out family members, famous fans and collaborators — John Cooper Clarke, Mark Radcliffe and Johnny Vegas amongst them – but the most thrilling moments arrive, without exception, courtesy of archive footage, much of it shot on VHS. From Sievey’s early home experimentations, we’re taken through a scruffily filmed gig at Wigan bus depot all the way to Frank’s slot at Reading on the same bill as Nirvana. This is a man who, much to the annoyance of his family who eventually learned not to pick up, published his home telephone number as a fan line, and kept the recordings.
Being Frank isn’t entirely a lionisation though, and Sullivan devotes time to the unfortunate trappings of fame that consumed his subject: depression, booze, womanising, debt and even bankruptcy. He also explores the idea of Frank as a prison that left Sievey unfulfilled and unrecognised and ultimately led to the character’s retirement in the late-90s. A 2006 resurrection was the kicked off a five-year-plan that was to conclude with a de-masking that never arrived. While the character returned to some acclaim, Being Frank draws a rough, tragic arc of a man who did not gain the recognition his talent deserved before his death in 2010. But as a corrective, the film succeeds where the five-year-plan could not, finally communicating the genius of Sievey’s relentless industry and sheer creativity, both inside and outside of Frank.