Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story review: a funny, moving tribute to one of Britain's greatest oddballs

Chris Sievey as Frank Sidebottom  - Copyright 2004
Chris Sievey as Frank Sidebottom - Copyright 2004

Dir: Steve Sullivan; Starring: Chris Sievey, Paula Sievey, Johnny Vegas, Ross Noble, John Cooper Clarke, Mark Radcliffe, Jon Ronson (as themselves). 15 cert, 103 mins

“The only way of reaching the universal,” Salvador Dalí once said, “is through the ultra-local.” He and Frank Sidebottom were on the same page. This lovingly assembled, rollickingly funny documentary pays tribute to the late Cheshire-born performance artist Chris Sievey and his papier-mâché-headed alter ego, who became a kind of unofficial UK troubadour-buffoon in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Sievey’s work as Frank – which encompassed songs, drawings, animations, TV broadcasts and more – sits in a strain of British surrealism that stretched from Yellow Submarine to Shooting Stars and beyond. But its magic came from the way it wasn’t obviously part of any bigger picture at all. It just felt, and still feels, like the felt-tip-coloured outflow of an utterly unique creative mind. 

Steve Sullivan’s film charts the bizarre story of Sievey’s rise to fame, and the way in which he and his creation became what one interviewee describes as “mutually symbiotic”: neither he nor the mask could have made it without the other’s help. A talented singer-songwriter and resourceful self-publicist, Sievey’s record-label rejection letters nevertheless filled a scrapbook, and by a twist of irony, the fame he craved only became possible when he hid himself from view.

The Frank character started life as a comedy side-show; a supposed obsessive fan of Sievey’s punk-pop band The Freshies who would turn up at their gigs and ramble at the crowd. But while the group languished in obscurity, Frank became something that almost qualified as a hit.

The distinctive PVC-glazed Sidebottom stare last graced cinemas in 2014, when Michael Fassbender played a version of Sievey in Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank. That film was written by the journalist Jon Ronson, a former keyboard player in the Frank Sidebottom Band, and was generally well received – though its attempt to say something broader about the blurred boundary between artists and their art meant the very particular strangeness of the Frank Sidebottom almost-phenomenon had to be sacrificed.

No such trade-off is necessary in Sullivan’s film, which has corralled a terrifically chosen line-up of interviewees to describe his unique concurrent rise and fall. Colleagues (including Ronson), contemporaries and family members all have their own perspective to offer and memories to impart.

There is also a wonderful range of archive materials apparently dug out from Sievey’s cellar, including footage of Frank’s transfixingly odd appearances on Saturday morning children’s television, skulking around behind Andy Crane on Motormouth and riffing with Andrea Arnold on No. 73. At the time these seemed to herald a mainstream breakthrough, but in the end it never came to pass. Frank faded into obscurity while Sievey found work as an animator on children’s shows such as Bob the Builder and Pingu.

The film’s last, most moving section details Sievey’s five-year comeback plan for Frank, beginning in 2006. He was to die of cancer in June 2010, aged 54, a few months before he had planned to remove his giant head in public for the first and only time, take ownership of his creation, then retire him for good. Sullivan’s film, and the 1,000-plus Kickstarter backers who helped fund it, have posthumously granted that wish.

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