Steve Sullivan on ‘Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story’

❉ As a film about Chris Sievey and his alter ego, Frank Sidebottom, is unleashed on the public, we chat with its creator.

“Sidebottom aficionados will love it, as it’s funny, comprehensive and illuminating, but it transcends being a mere fan-pleaser to become a genuinely moving tale of unfettered creatively which absolutely anyone could enjoy.”

Steve Sullivan, ‘Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story’

When filmmaker Steve Sullivan first embarked on the task of making a documentary about Chris Sievey – and his fantastic showbiz alter ego, Frank Sidebottom – he reckoned it the whole thing would take him about a year. He underestimated slightly. Eight years later, Sullivan sits shaking his head, beaming dazedly, and says: “Chris Sievey has taken the time he has taken to reveal himself properly.”

Frank Sidebottom (Photo credit Phil Fletcher)

Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story is finally released in selected cinemas and as a digital download on 29 March, and audiences can see for themselves what’s kept Sullivan so busy. It’s a glorious achievement which celebrates Sievey’s life with elan, and not just the bits he spent wearing a papier-mache head. Sidebottom aficionados will love it, as it’s funny, comprehensive and illuminating, but it transcends being a mere fan-pleaser to become a genuinely moving tale of unfettered creatively which absolutely anyone could enjoy. Sievey made his art his life: now Sullivan has turned Sievey’s life into a work of art.

Originally from Preston, Sullivan moved to Cardiff to study and started making a number of short films. 2001’s A Heap of Trouble, starring Andrew Schofield and a number of bollock-naked men, was a festival hit and a particular favourite of Mark Kermode. One night in Cardiff in 2006, Sullivan went to a birthday party at his friend’s house, and while perusing his CD collection – which was colour-coded, he recalls – one in particular leapt out at him:

“I was like, ‘have you got a whole CD of Frank Sidebottom?’. And he went ‘oh, yeah!’. I said ‘but why? That guy off the telly with the big head? He’s just like a kind of silly children’s entertainer, isn’t he?’. He said ‘no, he said there’s something else going on there. I can’t tell you what it is, but there’s something going on. Take that album home and just listen to it’. So I listened to it – and this world just opened up, this universe he’d created, with Little Frank and all these songs documenting his world, filling it all in. So I went back to my mate and I was like, ‘tell me more, how do I get in touch with him?’.

Frank Sidebottom (photo credit Dave Arnold)

No sooner had Sullivan written a fan letter introducing himself to Frank Sidebottom than ‘Frank’ replied, by turn of post, inviting him to bring a camera crew to Timperley that very weekend. The result was Sullivan’s film documenting Sidebottom’s unique Magical Timperley Tour, after which Sullivan and Sievey stayed in touch with vague plans to work together again. “There was something about him that was just so anarchic and so liberating, it was just infectious. I was a total convert. I said ‘look, whatever else you want to do, let’s do something’. At one point we were going to go to New York with the Happy Mondays, but then he rang me up and said, ‘Bez has had a problem with Customs so we’re not going to New York now.’”

Then, in June 2010, Sievey died at the age of 54 after collapsing at home. Sullivan attended the funeral, met Sievey’s family, and carried on with other film projects. Soon enough, though, he was struck by a notion he couldn’t shake. “I was talking to a friend, another filmmaker, about future ideas. I said I’d love to make a documentary – well, about Frank Sidebottom, but about the guy behind Frank Sidebottom, who he was, why was he doing what he was doing. My mate said ‘well, you should be making that right now. Why are you not making that?’. It was just like from a bolt from the blue, like one of those moments of real clarity where you just go ‘why am I not making a documentary about Frank Sidebottom and Chris Sievey?’”

Chris Sievey hiding his face, with Little Frank (Photo credit Rick Sarko)

Sullivan contacted Chris Sievey’s brother Martin to sound him out, and Martin replied immediately to say that he was in the process of clearing out Chris’ flat. A hundred boxes of personal possessions – tapes, home videos, notebooks, diaries, costumes, artwork – needed a new home, and Sullivan was welcome to the lot if he could make something of it. Sullivan couldn’t resist and promptly hired a transit van to pick it all up.

At this point, Sullivan launched a Kickstarter campaign for the project and set about working his way through this sprawling archive. Fast forward a few years and at long last, way longer than intended,  he emerged with a rough initial cut of the film. It was over 11 hours long. “From all the things I’d heard, from all the archive that I’d looked at, I had a list of the essential things to include – about Chris Sievey’s psychology, personality, art technique, his own career, all of that stuff. I said, ‘until I’ve got through that process and until we can sit down and watch it, then I’ll just carry on’. So that first cut was 11 hours and 18 minutes. It took us a weekend to watch it, starting on a Friday about 7 o’clock, finishing Sunday teatime. People were sleeping in shifts.”

Frank Sidebottom and Little Frank (Photo credit Dave Arnold)

The finished version of the film now reaching audiences clocks in at less than two hours, so there was a whole process of whittling away to get it to this stage. Sullivan says: “It was about finding the emotional spine of Chris’s life and sticking to that and then finding what you need to illustrate that. There was a point when I realised why most people, if they’re making a film about an artist and their creativity, they pick that one crucial turning point in their life and make it about that moment, rather than covering their whole life. But I love what we’ve ended up with, the fact that it’s got someone’s entire life in it. That’s such a rare thing, to see somebody’s entire life go by in a couple of hours. And regardless of who it is, it’s an emotional thing because we’re all mortal and it reminds you of your own mortality. But it was just about whittling it down. I mean, there were twenty edits in total so I’d just pare down and pare down and pare down.”

Frank Sidebottom (Photo credit John Barry)

Gradually the 11 hour-long version became 8 hours, which became 4, and so on as the running time was whittled down. The end result is a genuine labour of love, fittingly hand-crafted for an account of the life of a creative powerhouse such as Sievey. It’s all here: his teenage overtures to Apple Records, his time in post-punk so-nearly-weres The Freshies, the genesis of the Frank Sidebottom character (and Little Frank, and Little Denise) and all manners of ups, downs and sideways tangents. It takes in interviews with friends, family and erstwhile band-mates (including Mark Radcliffe and Jon Ronson), and much of the story itself is told using material salvaged straight from Sievey’s own archive, which was so nearly lost. It’s a fascinating, engaging, cherishable piece of work. You will laugh. You will cry. And you’ll probably laugh again after that.

Now the Sievey archive has been rehoused permanently in Manchester’s Central Library and Being Frank is unleashed on the public. Having lived with all this stuff for so long – quite literally – is it going to feel weird for Sullivan? “That’s going to be a good weird, that’s a weird I’m looking forward to. If it turns out there’s a day where I don’t have to do anything to do with Chris Sievey or Frank Sidebottom and I can actually do something for myself, then that’s going to be a new kind of weird that I’m prepared to tackle.”

Frank Sidebottom and Little Frank (Photo credit Chris Sievey archive)

After his gargantuan efforts, Sullivan is satisfied that he made the film he set out to make all those years ago. “Oh, totally. I said to my wife the other day that maybe in a few years I’ll feel like doing a director’s cut. She said ‘but this is the director’s cut. No-one’s made you take anything out’. It’s very very rare that you bring out a feature film and the director was also the editor and he had final cut. I feel so blessed that nobody interfered in that way. I mean, a few people have given creative suggestions over the years, but mainly people have said ‘just keep going’.”

❉ ‘Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story’ is currently screening in cinemas throughout the UK and Ireland and available to download digitally, will be available to own on DVD and Blu-Ray, complete with a raft of fantastic new extras, on April 29. DVD & Blu-Ray Extras: NOT BOBBINS BONUS SCENES | FANTASTIC ARHIVE | PLUS – a further 30mins of bonus footage (Blu-Ray only)

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 Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to Big Issue North. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for Television. He’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.

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