Film Review: Being Frank

Timperley or Bust

You know you’ve seen an incredible documentary when the entire way home (and to be honest, ever since) after the screening you are regretting that you will never get to meet the subject, or see them perform their magic live. Such was the case a short while ago after a showing of the truly wonderful and chaotic joy that is ‘Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story’ (2018) directed by Steve Sullivan.

Steve Sullivan

Chris was born in 1955 a few miles from Timperley in the suburbs of Manchester, Frank (Sidebottom) was born years later in a galaxy far, far away inside the rainbow universe that was Chris’ head, but we’ll get to that in a moment.It’s difficult trying to figure out where to start with such a subject as effectively Chris is one of the greatest and most prolific artists I never knew about. His productivity his entire life was so off the scale dense with creating anything and literally everything he could, that it’s almost a disservice to only have one documentary to cover it. That’s not a criticism upon the film, not at all, I would have happily asked the projectionist to rewind and start it again, but my brain was basically tripping my nut off with what I’d just seen.

If someone was to sit down and tell you his story you wouldn’t believe them, but thanks to his family, Steve was given access to the modern equivalent of the Great Library of Alexandria, but it was a basement and all the stuff was about Chris’ life in the multiple forms of old VHS tapes, artworks, notebooks, memorabilia and a whole swathe of items that Chris had made over the decades. Together with testimonies from family and friends, and the support of a Kickstarter campaign, the people who he sired and inspired came together to create a beautiful tribute to a truly incredible human being, though it wasn’t laughs all the way.

There’s a phenomenal amount of old footage on show which shows Chris had always had a showman capacity about him from an early age. He was also never short of ideas, though entrepreneurial abilities were never really going to be his thing, far from it indeed. But in his youth he was coming up with ideas such as selling tickets to his Subbuteo League matches, so the off kilter thinking was nurtured from the beginning. This was only enhanced by daily mutual entertainment with his brother and it no doubt blossomed after the two of them took some acid.

They made many videos and creations, always pushing ideas as far as possible, all the while drifting towards making music. They had also nurtured a powerful and admirable self belief (not always founded) that had them hitch-hiking down to London to effectively demand a record contract, which didn’t really work, but they managed to blag some studio time. Surely there’s a lesson in that alone.

Label indifference (100+ rejection letters) wasn’t going to stop him, so he set up his own, recorded multiple works and ultimately started playing under the band name The Freshies who actually went on to have a hit called ‘I’m in Love with the Girl on the Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk’, which was both marketing genius (putting the brand in), but also fundamentally flawed in that BBC radio stations couldn’t play tracks with brands in them.

These flaws were a constant throughout his life, in that no matter the many lifetimes of work that he created, nothing seemed to latch on, take hold of the nation and grow. That was until in attending a fancy dress house party one night he came up with the papier-mâché painted head that was to be Frank Sidebottom, who apparently was The Freshies number one fan.
Frank looked like a living cartoon of a quintessential English eccentric gentleman in 1950’s garb (from the charity shop), who was 35 and still lived at home with his elderly mum.

The popularity exploded with his attendance at The Freshies gigs, as did Chris’ ability to fully give over to the character to the extent that Chris effectively disappeared completely. But it was like the reverse Dorian Gray of comedy, where the we saw the art, always looking great, and the true deterioration was happening underneath in real life.

Franks world rapidly expanded, bringing in new characters such as Little Frank (a small hand puppet assistant version) on many extensive tours across the UK, spreading much delight with northern whimsy and surreal charm that quickly developed into a cult following and increasing amount of creative outlets on various tv slots and even his own shows.

But that is just the tip of the (now) fibreglass head. There’s vast amounts more I’ve not mentioned. But what becomes apparent very early on is Chris’ quest to entertain everyone, all the time, was almost a distraction from his own headspace. It’s incredibly unusual to see so much ceaseless productivity from a single individual, it’s almost as if his very life depended on it, if not his sanity.

There is a profound richness of creativity on display here, but what truly wins is the humanity. Despite the distraction of an overtly fake visage, you can hear the tenderness in every gleefully chaotic comedic word, and the love of those who knew him. The documentary is very honest and open with the demons Chris danced with his entire life, and other people’s laughter seemed to be his weapon of choice. If he made folk laugh, and love, he was winning, though it absolutely took its toil.

Like I said, this is a truly fantastic film about one of the greatest talents I’ve (now) ever seen, though straightforward in presentation, that’s actually a very wise choice, as I have NEVER seen such levels of creativity in a documentary about anybody else, EVER! So it’s best not to gild the lily.
I can’t praise this film enough, it really deserves to be seen on the big screen, and watch later on dvd/streaming multiple times as there is just so much to take in, but at least we can all start to catch up with the profound love his home of Timperly rightly has for him.

Oh! One last thing, stay till after the end of the credits.

Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story is out in UK & Irish cinemas now. Check for more information.