Review: BEING FRANK: THE CHRIS SIEVEY STORY (2019) [Hebden Bridge Film Festival]

Just a few miles from the documentary’s setting, Hebden Bridge Film Festival 2019 was a great setting to view Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story. Many of the film’s Kickstarter donors were in attendance to see the final version and hear more at a Q&A with Steve Sullivan about the epic archival study that lay before him to create this film.

For scores of his fans, if the long list of Kickstarter contributors that close this film are anything to go by, Frank Sidebottom is a comedy genius deserving of a true memorial on film. An icon of slapstick weirdness that influenced northern culture and a host of future comedy highlights, underneath the sweaty papier mache head and nose-clip of Frank is the lesser known story of its creator, Chris Sievey.

An anarchic wannabe popstar, who released self-penned inventively titled songs with his “uncool” band The Freshies, including ‘I’m In Love With The Girl On A Certain Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk’ and ‘I Can’t Get ‘Bouncing Babies’ by The Teardrop Explodes’, Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story (2019) attempts to unmask the personas of Chris/Frank and delve into the unruly and hilarious world of his making.

Moving away from the fictionalised story of Frank Sidebottom in Lenny Abrahamson’s inventive Frank (2014), filmmaker and longtime fan Steve Sullivan gathered together the Sievey family archives and reels of Frank footage to piece together the interchangeable and interlocking lives of Frank and Chris, including interviews with family members, former band mates (like Mark Radcliffe and Jon Ronson) and notable fans (Johnny Vegas, John Cooper Clarke, John Thomson…so like, all the Johns).

The original edit came in at over 11 hours long, and the film does make it absolutely clear just how prolific Chris/Frank was, documenting nearly every creative urge on film, on paper or with music. The epic task to whittle these living diaries of Chris/Frank’s career is artfully done, interweaving drawings, notes and documents Sullivan had uncovered, often taking years to sift through. Young Chris’s many letters and demos that were sent to record companies leave a trail of frustrated obsession, bull-headed ambition and boyish creativity ingenuity that would go on to be his winning formula and at times, his downfall.

The friends and acquaintances’ reminiscences in wide-shot interviews are a charming mix of bemused incredulity and befuddled admiration. Many of whom are staples of Manchester’s music and comedy scenes and all have increasingly outlandish tales of their own encounters with Chris/Frank to share. Chris’s demons are touched upon, namely problems with alcoholism and his complete lack of ability (or interest, depending on your point of view) in maintaining a stable home for his family, but this is not the focus of The Chris Sievey Story, perhaps to its detriment. Passing away at the age of 54 in 2010, Chris was saved from the prospect of a pauper’s funeral, which gives some indication of the unsettled life that follows many artists, most especially by Chris, who felt destined to persist in his chaotic but much loved endeavours, right to the end.

The film is on steadier ground as a celebration for the fans of Frank Sidebottom, showing extended clips of never-before-seen footage of stuffy club land performances, raucous appearances on children’s television in the 1990s and hilarious home videos from around the time that Frank was first conceived in Chris’ kaleidoscopic mind. Early home footage of Chris at home with his children and ex-wife are particularly heart-wrenching to witness.

I only have a vague memory of Frank Sidebottom, a half-remembered instance of staying up and catching Frank on a late night television programme and being utterly baffled but intrigued. For many, Frank was perhaps a tonic for the usual north’s dreary creative output and catapulted “fantastic” fan-driven fun into the lives of his devotees. Making appearances at the legendary 1992 edition of Reading Festival, and er, a Bros gig at Wembley, Frank was weirding out people of all ages.

Going to the extremes of putting his home telephone number into his hand-drawn fanzine and playing bespoke, off-the-cuff songs down the phone to anyone who rang, inventing computerised promotional video and single for 1980s computers, embedding secret codes into the seemingly random comic strips of Oink! for dedicated fans to crack, were just some of the ingenious but ridiculous lengths Chris/Frank went to pursue creative obscurity alongside legendary status. In the north of England at least, and most especially, in Timperley.

Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story is an affectionate and frequently hilarious insight into the strange world of two people practically indistinguishable from the other. Though it doesn’t really begin to explain Chris and Frank’s relationship with one another (surely the most intriguing question you can’t help but wonder), Being Frank is a witty ode to a man and his head. Oh, and the papier mache one too.

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