Let’s be honest, the character of Frank Sidebottom could be marmitey. He had lots of fiercely devoted fans, yes, but just as many people found him silly and baffling. It stands to reason, then, that a documentary about him would be of only niche appeal. It’s to its enormous credit that Being Frank goes far beyond being a fan-pleasing project to become a universal story about eccentric, unbridled creativity for its own sake and the way that, if you wear it long enough, a mask can become your face.
The trick is, this isn’t really the Frank Sidebottom story – or at least, that’s not all it is. More correctly it’s the full story of Chris Sievey, the Sale-born music and pop culture buff who made his mark on the world as Frank, albeit largely by accident. It’s about the man inside, rather than behind the mask. Director Steve Sullivan has assembled this documentary of Sievey’s life and times, painstakingly, over the course of seven years, while in possession of Sievey’s own vast archive of tapes, photos, footage and notebooks. Within that vast jumble it succeeds in finding the story of a flawed, sometimes frustrated but often inspired artist who has remained little known until this point.
It’s all here: Sievey’s tireless youthful quest to become a star and his prolific DIY output, his adventures leading the nearly-but-just-not-quite-successful band The Freshies, his forays with comics and animation and the off-hand, intuitive evolution of a would-be disposable character who speaks in a pinched, nasal whine, lives with his mum in Timperley and has a massive Day-Glo papier-mâché head.
Sievey had more to him than Frank and the film spells that fact out with skill and care, but it also shines a light on the question that everyone who ever laid eyes on Frank must have asked themselves: ‘Who’s inside there and what in God’s name possessed them to do that?’.
Sievey’s life wasn’t all big laughs, not by a long chalk, and as the punning title implies, Being Frank doesn’t hold back. It’s never mawkish or prurient. It’s supremely well-judged, not over-played. It tells the whole unvarnished story which is by turns funny, revealing, involving and heart-breakingly sad where necessary. In fact, it’s far more moving than might be expected. Yes, as a rule it tends to romanticise Sievey and his talents, but then, as it illustrates, even those who had to live with his faults and shortcomings couldn’t help but cherish him.
Alongside Sievey’s own archive materials, the film gathers people who knew him well – his family, his friends, his Freshies colleagues, erstwhile band-mates Mark Radcliffe and Jon Ronson and so on – to share their own recollections. All told, Sievey emerges as a funny, compulsively creative man who found in Frank and his world a way to spill out his chaotic inventiveness and love of performance. It just wasn’t quite the pop songwriter role he always craved and consequently Frank became a wide-eyed albatross.
One stray image included here seems central to the film’s whole thrust. It’s the photo inside the gate-fold Frank Sidebottom double album 5.9.88, showing Sievey as Frank on his bed surrounded by stacks of ephemeraa, posters and toys relating to all his favourite cultural touchstones, taking in Star Trek, Thunderbirds, Altrincham FC, Daleks, Paul McCartney and Batman. He might be having a whale of a time but he actually looks trapped by it all, as though he’s turning into a walking, talking toy puppet whether he likes it or not.
There are points when precise details – dates, for instance – are garbled or glossed over, but the thread of the narrative always remains clear (apparently the earliest assembled rough cut ran to more than 11 hours, so telling the story in under two hours is an impressive achievement). At times the quality of footage here, and the audio accompanying it, isn’t exactly Dolby Digital crystal clear, but in fact that low-fi feel works to its advantage, and the eye-popping look of the film is terrific. A super-shiny, highly polished approach wouldn’t suit Sievey and Sidebottom anyway, whereas the organic, home-made, coloured-in feel of Being Frank feels entirely fitting to its subject and manages to capture his faintly unhinged sense of fun.
Full of momentum and yet disciplined and measured in tone, this is very evidently a labour of love, trumping all previous attempts to tackle the Frank phenomenon. It would be fair and true to call it a genuine, heart-felt celebration of a misunderstood and little-known artist that deserves to be seen and appreciated by the widest possible audience. But basically, you want to know if Being Frank is absolutely fantastic, don’t you? So yes, let’s go there. You know it is. It really is.
By Andy Murray, Film Editor
Being Frank is showing in selected cinemas including Manchester’s HOME from March 29. It’s also available as a digital download from the same date.