❉ This movie gives you a life story of a man who seemed to be have been gifted, or cursed, with the compulsion to create.
“The film is beautifully put together and sensibly tips the balance of talking-heads to archive footage well in the favour of the archive which is a mix of family video, show recordings, music videos, fan club messages and art experiments.”
Anyone who saw Frank Sidebottom, even if it was just a glimpse of him causing chaos on kids’ TV, had his image seared onto their brain. The papier-mâché head, a stroke of creative genius, was instantly recognisable and the silhouette of Sidebottom, perhaps crouched over a keyboard, or in full Freddie Mercury garb or even just knocking about with his banjolele was something you never forget. The big blue eyes, wide, weird and innocent stared out at audiences that either loved him or were baffled by him (usually both). If you weren’t one of the in-crowd from the early-days or perhaps you only ever saw his appearances on Saturday morning telly, the story of the man-inside-the-head might be totally unknown to you.
Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story, uses the extensive archives of the man himself to present the Sievey/Sidebottom story in documentary format as told by friends, family, collaborators and fans. It doesn’t seek to explore the notion of Sievey as some sort of enigmatic Outsider Artist, but to put flesh on the bones of a man whose own life ended up subordinate to the character he’d created. From his early days, via his band The Freshies and then into Frank Sidebottom territory, Sievey’s story has been put together by Steve Sullivan from an archive which, had he not rescued it, could easily have been landfill by now. Read Andy Murray’s interview with Steve Sullivan for We Are Cult, here.
Chris Sievey could possibly be seen to be a victim of the time into which he was born. The growing access to the means of production, in Chris’s case cassette-recorders and then video-recorders, gave him the opportunity to create new material constantly and on his own terms. Even his earliest encounter with the record industry, in particular with Apple Records, was triggered by The Beatles’ own (perhaps misguided) attempt to give everyone a chance to become a ‘star’ – a creative and democratic dream which instead became a nightmare for the staff at Apple who had to work their way through the hundreds and thousands of tapes that arrived through the post. Sievey and his brother went a step further and turned-up at Apple in person, staging a sit-in until they were given some studio time. Had he been born a decade earlier, when cheap personal recording solutions weren’t an option, Sievey might have had to form a ‘proper’ band, slog through gig-after-gig and graft his way into the industry. It seems instead that, armed with a million ideas and some cassette tapes, he was going to have to Do It Himself – a notion that tied into the punk ethic of the 1970s although his heart always really belonged to The Beatles. Extracts of songs throughout the documentary betray how big an influence the Lennon/McCartney sound was on Sievey’s own songwriting – there’s a poignancy and elegance to some of the snippets that make you feel like if the right person at the right time had heard them, he would have had a chance as himself to be the successful musician he really wanted to be.
The montage nature of the documentary, built as it is out of archive footage, serves perfectly to reflect Sievey’s personality. Almost every cut in the film, every new scene, reflects something new that he was trying out. He was clearly not a man who worried about closed doors – he’d keep trying handles until one opened. I considered trying to express this notion with some laboured metaphor about his being a hummingbird, flitting from flower to flower, but hummingbirds find nectar more often than Chris found success, or money. Although, hummingbirds don’t worry about bills, or tax, so they’ve got that in common with him. It was perhaps his desire to keep moving-on, questing constantly for his ultimate form of self-expression, that caused the success of Frank Sidebottom to turn into the burden it seemed to become.
The documentary pulls at some threads of this dichotomy, although the undoubtedly fascinating psychological aspects of this can’t really be explored here. It’s not that sort of film, but you’re left in no doubt that the Chris/Frank relationship could be explored for years to come. Frank himself is as complex as he is funny. There are archive extracts of him singing the ‘Ahs’ of his own Casio keyboard version of Twist and Shout which descend into throat-shredding screams. It’s a classic comedy heightening routine, getting as far away and as weird as possible from where you started, but it also feels like Sievey, trapped inside the papier-mâché, is going into full Primal-Scream-Therapy mode. Frank makes it a joke, Chris actually feels it, the footage suggests. Similarly Frank’s relationship with the puppet’s puppet, Little Frank, can be viewed from different angles. Was Little Frank a comedy prop, provided to comically derail Big Frank, or was he an avatar for Frank himself, for Chris to admonish for pulling-focus from him?
The film is beautifully put together and sensibly tips the balance of talking-heads to archive footage well in the favour of the archive which is a mix of family video, show recordings, music videos, fan club messages and art experiments. Included on the disc is a selection from the archive of Sievey, including plenty of Frank Sidebottom sequences as well as some deleted scenes, which are interesting in themselves – a series of illuminating and amusing anecdotes which actually sit better outside of the flow of the documentary.
If the film is missing anything in particular it might be that – given its archival nature – it doesn’t have time to go into detail about any particular aspect of the Sievey/Sidebottom output or obsessions. I’d love to know why science-fiction figures, Daleks especially, loom so large in ‘their’ lives and more about the DIY aspect of his music and video making. For Sievey the DIY approach was clearly second-nature, but it’s a fascinating part of the creative industries that is perhaps not widely understood. Sievey’s story would make a fascinating case-study. That said, his output was so extensive, so detailed, weird and beautiful, it would have been a crime to simply examine one aspect and neglect another. This movie gives you a life story of a man who seemed to be have been gifted, or cursed, with the compulsion to create. Whether you find it funny, sad, troubling or celebratory is up to you. If they were with us still, you can bet Frank and Chris would still be creating, and there’d be Daleks in it.
❉ ‘Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray, complete with a raft of fantastic new extras, plus a further 30mins of bonus footage (Blu-Ray only). An official soundtrack album is also available. Released on Iain Lee’s 7A Records and packed with the best of the newly discovered Chris Sievey and Frank Sidebottom rarities featured the film, the soundtrack will be available as a very limited (500 copies) picture disc vinyl album as well as on CD. Preorder the vinyl here and CD here.
❉ Official Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/BeingFrankDoc
❉ Official Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/BeingFrankDoc
❉ Paul Abbott runs Hark! The 87th Precinct Podcast, which takes a look at each of the books in series in turn, but usually turns quite silly. He also makes noises with his band in Liverpool, Good Grief, and spends the rest of the time thinking about Transformers, The Beatles, Doctor Who and Monty Python.