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Familiar to film buffs as the inspiration for 2014’s Domhnall Gleeson/Michael Fassbender vehicle Frank, the true story of Frank Sidebottom is, for once, even stranger and more colorful than its fictionalization. An engrossing doc portrait of the English cult star whose head was a watermelon-sized ball of papier-mache, Steve Sullivan’s Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story lends an ear to those who knew the man beneath the mask. A charmer with strong appeal for video release, it is lively enough to merit a niche theatrical run beforehand.
Before he became Frank, an alter-ego that consumed him, Chris Sievey was one of those aspiring musicians whose ambition seems unimpeded by the world’s indifference. An enormous Beatles fan, he went with brother Martin to the headquarters of their Apple record label, even convincing staffers to record a demo for him. After Martin gave up on the band, Chris self-released his own cassettes, and collected so many rejection letters from record companies that he began enclosing a cheeky form-letter rejection with his submissions, to save execs some time.
He enjoyed a sliver of success with his band The Freshies; but this was the late ‘70s near Manchester, and the group’s power-pop energy was out of sync with the Joy-Division gloom overtaking the region. Despite some very inventive attempts at self-promotion, amusingly recounted by bandmates here, the group failed.
Sievey was ahead of the curve on technological developments like home video (to the chagrin of his wife, who could have used the money he spent for things like bills and rent); he even, in the very early days of home computers, released a 7-inch single that had a song on one side and a primitive computer program on the other.
The character that would become famous started off as just another of these promotional tactics. Having made a stylized papier-mache head for a Halloween party, Sievey reused it to invent Frank Sidebottom, a superfan of The Freshies; the character starred in some videos and was an opening act for the band.
But Frank became a fixture in little Timperley, the town where Sievey was based, and started his own band. The Oh Blimey Big Band was as (intentionally) terrible as its name suggests — more a kind of comic performance art than a musical act — but the group soon drew a following.
Oh Blimey bandmates, including author Jon Ronson (who fictionalized his experience as the group’s keyboardist when co-writing Frank), try to outdo each other here, donning oddball costumes — likely at Sullivan’s urging — and sitting for interviews surrounded by Sidebottom paraphernalia. They help the filmmaker recount the character’s trajectory from nightclubs to his seemingly inevitable popularity on TV shows for children, where his manic, improvised antics outshone the professionals’ scripted bits. Soon, Frank was introducing acts at Wembley Stadium.
Sievey died of cancer in 2010, but for years it seemed he might do himself in. Former wife Paula Sievey pegs his decline to Frank Sidebottom’s Fantastic Shed Show, a TV series that started in the early ‘90s. With so much attention on this character he created, Sievey started relying on booze and cocaine, and found time out of costume to run around with other women. The couple divorced, and for a while Sievey said goodbye to Frank as well.
Friends and family are wryly affectionate as they describe Sievey’s faults, marveling at his prodigious creative output. Sullivan shows us comics and paintings and fanzines, where even the decorative geometric borders turned out to have secret messages coded in them. Few artists manage to be this creative for long unless they’re successful enough to hire assistants: If Sievey could have afforded a small team of practical-minded helpers, Frank might have become a Pee-Wee Herman-sized phenomenon.
As it was, Sievey wound up being played on the big screen by Michael Fassbender, getting a bronze statue of Frank planted in a Timperley plaza and outliving Joy Division’s Ian Curtis by decades. He mightn’t have ever been a full-blown star, but you can’t call him a failure, either.
Production company: Piece of Cardboard Productions
Director-Editor-Producer: Steve Sullivan
Executive producers: Alex Usborne, Adam Partridge, Thomas R. Atherton
Director of photography: Ezra Byrne
Production designer: Dave Arnold
Composers: Chris Sievey, Frank Sidebottom
Venue: South By Southwest Film Festival (24 Beats per Second)
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