It’s apt that this brilliant documentary is being released today, March 29, when matters of Britain and Britishness are once again at the top of the news agenda (for better or worse). Because Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story, is the tale of a peculiarly British phenomenon and a great – if not the greatest – British eccentric.
A musician, comedian, artist, broadcaster, writer and prankster, Chris Sievey not only made a career out of being a bloke in a suit with a big papier-mâché head, he made a life out of it, too.
Frank found fame in the 1980s and 1990s, popping up frequently on mainstream TV, on stage, at festivals and even in the pages of NME. His art, in every form, was doggedly DIY – he drew (and coloured in!) his own record sleeves, hand-wrote his track-listings, created his own videos and improvised his utterly unpredictable public appearances. So well fleshed-out was Frank’s world that Chris Sievey, the man behind him, would remain in character whenever Frank was in public – in his heyday, it was said, possibly apocryphally, that there existed no pictures of him without the head.
So that’s what director Steve Sullivan has set out to do in this crowd-funded biography: to tell Chris Sievey’s story as well as Frank’s, and emphasise the distinction between them. A dummy assuming control of its ventriloquist is a well-trodden trope in fiction, and Sullivan does a fine job in teasing out the tension in this real life version of the same; Sievey, you understand, resents Frank for finding the fame that eluded him with his pop band The Freshies. Frank, in turn, resents his own ventriloquist puppet Little Frank for being more popular with his fans.
But this isn’t the story of a man unraveling. Rather, it’s a celebration of a uniquely hilarious and brilliant person, an artist driven by creativity and playfulness, and for whom the size of the audience didn’t matter so long as someone was looking.
With unparalleled access to an archive of material found rotting in the late Sievey’s brother’s cellar, we see early home videos, Freshies performances, Frank’s tours of his beloved hometown, Timperley, and a selection of his hilariously surreal TV appearances. In one, from his own Manchester-based talk show, Frank interviews Spice Girl Emma Bunton about her new single. His opening question is to ask what colour pen she wrote it in. In another, he asks American singer David Soul if he’s ever been on a plane.
Being Frank is also a very human tale of the lives he touched: interviews with Chris’s former wife, children, friends, fans and bandmates including journalist Jon Ronson and broadcaster Mark Radcliffe tell the story of a troubled but well-loved man. It’s a cliché to say a film will make you laugh and cry, but this one did both. Thank goodness I wasn’t the one wearing the papier-mâché head.
In stark contrast to the Michael Fassbender film Frank, which re-imagined a Frank Sidebottom-like character as a pretentious, humourless, American outsider artist making droning indie rock, and which missed the essence of Sidebottom in every possible way, this film does Frank’s legacy proud. Fans will delight in seeing sides of Chris and Frank they never have before. Those who’ve never even heard of Frank Sidebottom will find the inspiring, touching life story of a man touched with genius. As Frank himself might say, it’s fantastic… it really is.