I can remember Frank Sidebottom, Chris Sievey’s enormous-headed alter ego, being a semi-regular fixture of television when I was very young. At the age of 6 or 7 I didn’t really get his shtick, likely because, despite the seeming naivety of the character, it wasn’t really a creation aimed at children. There was a sophistication behind the anarchic bumbling and inane questions that flew over my young head. It wasn’t until I grew up, until after Sievey’s death in 2010 and I actively sought out the Frank Sidebottom material, that I began to appreciate the artistry behind the creation.
This very late arrival at the party meant that, although I was now presented with a wealth of previously unseen material, there was a melancholy sense of having missed an opportunity to enjoy Chris Sievey in his prime, when he was actually still alive. There is a similar feeling inherent in Steve Sullivan’s Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story, that a man who achieved an undeniable level of cult success, still died penniless and without the due recognition he surely deserved.
The movie is built from a host of clips from various Frank Sidebottom TV shows, live performances, interviews and more, most of which were apparently retrieved from Sievey’s wet basement. These are augmented with interviews from those who knew him best both professionally and personally including the likes of Mark Radcliffe, Jon Ronson, John Cooper Clarke, former Freshies bandmates and, of course, his family. Sullivan’s retrospective is, like Sievey’s work, loud colourful and with a buoyant and breezy sense of fun.
Much like Sievey’s funeral, the documentary was crowdfunded, which seems an apt approach to film financing given the homemade, make do and make more attitude that Chris applied to his art over the years; making opportunities for himself when none were forthcoming. For an act which seems so wild, unpredictable and uncontrollable, the level of hard work, preparation and detail that went into its creation – as illuminated by Sullivan’s film – is astonishing. What’s perhaps most notable is the image of a singularly driven artist with a massive, borderline obsessive commitment to his act that one might never have previously suspected given the way in which Sievey guarded his identity and the slightly ramshackle way in which his character was presented.
What’s also notable is the human face being the mask. Money troubles, domestic strife and substance abuse all factor into Sievey’s story; but more than those a sense of unfulfillment. Frank Sidebottom began life as a spin off effort to promote Sievey’s struggling band and was only ever meant to be a gateway to more sustained mainstream success that never came. That it became his most popular (read only real) success is perhaps the most remarkable and heart-breaking aspect of the story. You know it is, it really is.
Chris Banks | [rating=4]
Documentary, Music | UK, 2019 | 15 | 29th April 2019 | DVD, Blu-Ray | Altitude Films| Dir.Steve Sullivan |Martin Sievey, Mark Radcliffe, John Cooper Clarke, Chris Sievey,