Being Frank : The Chris Sievey Story: Five Star Review
In my lounge, I have a huge model of a papier mâché head. It’s not actually made of papier mâché. I think it is made of fibreglass. The head is a great talking point when I have people round. I have been trying to find a black gloss mannequin on E-Bay to rest my head on and to show it off as it should be. This head means more to me than possibly anything else that I possess. It reminds me of my student days at Hull University when I became obsessed with a comedy character known as Frank Sidebottom. For those of you who don’t know, Frank Sidebottom was an invented character who wore a giant head and claimed to live at home with his Mum at the age of thirty-five, whilst trying to conceal his ‘show-business’ career. He was supported and tormented by a range of other invented characters who were made entirely of cardboard. Frank’s humour was puerile and self-deprecating. It wasn’t intellectual or particularly sophisticated. But it was hilarious and like Marmite: you either got it or you didn’t. One of the highlights of my life was having Frank sing ‘Fireball XL5’ to me. It’s still one of my favourite songs. I can recite huge chunks of his comedy albums because I listened to them time and again and they never became boring. The more I listened, the more I laughed. I play them to my children, and they laugh too. Frank Sidebottom’s humour reminds us of what first made us laugh as children. The puns on words, the fear of authority and the ‘fuddy-duddies’, the use of slapstick and above all else the unadulterated joy at laughing at someone for no other reason than they were just daft.
The man behind the head was relatively unknown for many years and he did much to conceal his identity. His name was Chris Sievey. Sometimes it was hard to believe that there was a person beneath the head, as Frank Sidebottom was such a complete and realistic character. But there was someone there, and unlike Frank, he lived in virtual obscurity. In 2010 it was announced that Chris Sievey had died of cancer. He was penniless. He would have had a pauper’s funeral, had it not been for an army of loyal fans who clubbed together to give him the respect he deserved in death. No one could believe that Chris and with him Frank, had gone. Frank seemed to be forever young. He was never going to leave us. The fans wanted a permanent memorial to Frank. Again, they clubbed together and raised money to erect a statue in Timperley; Frank’s home town and to whom he dedicated so many of his songs where lyrics were changed to mention Timperley, such as Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in Timperley’ Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody – ‘Is this just real life? Is this just Timperley?’ and the Kinks, ‘Timperley Sunset’ with ‘Whenever I gaze up, Timperley sunset, I am in paradise’.
As Chris’s family were clearing out his home, they found a huge archive of material including notebooks, artwork, music, tape recordings, videos and film of his entire life and career. This monumental archive was going to be placed on a skip and destroyed. However, yet again, family and fans came to the rescue and decided that something needed to be done to keep Chris’s work and pay tribute to the huge talent that lay beneath that papier mâché head. There is no doubt that Chris Sievey was an incredibly talented and creative man. He recognised the power of film and video decades before YouTube came along. He was the first musician to release a multi-media record that came with its own video game. He merged the worlds of art, video and music. He gave many stars such as Caroline Aherne, Chris Evans, Jonny Vegas and Mark Radcliffe their first rung up the ladder of success and somehow, he also managed to rhyme lama with Bananarama and rhino with ‘I know’.
Thus it was, that filmmaker Steve Sullivan, was tasked with the enormous job of wading through the archive in order to produce a documentary film about Chris and of course Frank. Steve had collaborated with Frank on a film in 2006 called the Magical Timperley Tour. Steve’s previous films have won awards internationally. He is best known for his short film A Heap of Trouble, a musical about naked men, which won the grand jury prize at the Montreal Comedy Festival, a BAFTA Cymru for Best Short Film, and has screened at over a hundred film festivals around the world. Steve started making the film as a labour of love in 2012, researching hundreds of boxes of Chris’ own possessions that were rescued from his house; including diaries, notebooks, props, costumes and work-in-progress. This amazing archive has helped Steve understand Chris Sievey’s highly creative and often chaotic life, and revealed many fascinating and hilarious surprises.
In May 2013, Steve ran a successful Kickstarter campaign, and Frank Sidebottom’s fans from around the world backed the film and helped it get off the ground. Over a thousand backers pledged over forty-eight thousand pounds to help bring this project to life. I was one such backer. Fast forward to 2018 and the film was finally finished and premiered in America at the SFSW film festival in Texas. The film was also premiered in London at the BFI Film festival. Eventually the film came to Manchester for a special backers-only screening. So late last year I went with my husband to see the Manchester premier of the film.
My intention had been to make notes during the film but as the documentary unfolded, I found it impossible to move my eyes away from the screen, even for a second and thus I decided to relax, sit back and enjoy the genius that was Chris Sievey aka Frank Sidebottom. The format of the film is made up of Chris’s archive, interspersed with comments and explanations from Chris’s closest family and friends. From an early age, Chris was fascinated by film and he would record just about every aspect of his life from his initial forays into Pop Music with the Freshies, to his role as a father to his kids. He came across in those early days, not just hungry for fame but downright starving. Chris became obsessional in his collection of rejection letters from music companies.
Chris tended to self-destruct. For example, he was asked to support the boy band Bros at Wembley as Frank Sidebottom. There were thousands of people in the crowd. This was his chance to break through to the mainstream. But instead he chose to perform a series of terrible Bros cover versions for five minutes and was bottled off. The show’s promoter, Harvey Goldsmith, was glaring at him from the wings. Frank walked over to him and said, “I’m thinking of putting on a gig at the Timperley Labour Club. Do you have any tips?”
In many ways, the film is a sort of existential philosophical discourse about an individual’s need to be recognised for their art and it further explores the idea that there are some people who are just too weird or wacky or even wonderful, for the mainstream media. We see Chris battling with Frank. It was Frank that the audience wanted, not Chris. His creative life became a duel between the inventor and his conception. It is almost reminiscent of the story of Frankenstein: the inter-dependency of the creator and his creation. In one clip we see Chris as Frank, larger than life and performing to his adoring audience. We then see him move away and collapse and remove the head for Chris Sievey to appear, exhausted, inert and overwhelmed. Sometimes the creation became just too much for him: like a monster. It was as if Chris regretted allowing the character to take on a life much greater than his own. There were many times he just wanted to be Chris and recognised for himself, but it never happened.
This film is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. As a huge fan of Frank Sidebottom, I was always going to enjoy it, but what I didn’t expect was the poignancy and sensitivity that emerged. This film has a universal appeal and I would challenge even those who never quite ‘got’ Frank Sidebottom, not to watch this without being moved. It has been a monumental task for Steve Sullivan to wade through Chris’s huge archive, not forgetting that he has had to keep so many loyal and demanding Frank fans on side. This film deserves every one of its accolades and in some ways, it should be held up as an example of what documentaries should be. However, it is far more than that. It is a thank you from the fans to Chris. It is their tribute to a man who when alive, gave them so much joy and allowed them to regularly peek back at the naivety of their childhood and experience the pure joy of laughing at his silliness. If nothing else, this film will ensure that Frank will live on for subsequent generations to discover. And as Frank would say, “You know it will. It really will.”
Being Frank The Chris Sievey Story is available at cinemas from 29th March. You can find out more here.