Thursday, 4 April 2019

BEING FRANK: THE CHRIS SIEVEY STORY review

Based on the life of musician Chris Sievey and the comedy character he created that came to dominate his life, Being Frank is now in cinemas and on VOD.


If you grew up in the North of England in the 80's and 90's, you just knew who Frank Sidebottom was. I couldn't tell you when I first saw Frank on TV, so prolific were his appearances that it just felt like he's always been there. What I can tell you about is the time I unwittingly met Chris/Frank. Whilst doing temp runner work for local Manchester based TV station Channel M's breakfast show in the mid 00's, I was introduced to a man called Chris who had come into the studio to take part in a segment featuring a group of local school children. After shaking Chris's hand he disappeared behind a divider to get ready for the show, only to appear moments later on camera wearing the head of Frank Sidebottom. Scratch that, he WAS Frank Sidebottom. I had just met Frank Sidebottom. Reader, my jaw hit the floor. Frank may not have been a Hollywood celebrity, but for a young guy growing up in the North, Frank was a truly original icon. But what I knew absolutely nothing about was the man under the mask, Chris Sievey.

Sidebottom's visage of big eyes, pursed lips and side parted hair is certainly an indelible one, but most people will come to this with only the prior knowledge of Frank's previous big screen incarnation in the very, very loosely based version of him played by Michael Fassbender in Frank. In order to tell the real story of Frank and his creator, filmmaker Steve Sullivan took the soon to be relegated to the rubbish tip contents of a damp basement containing Sievey's archive of recordings, writings and papier mache creations, and with the full cooperation of his family set out to discover what made Sievey tick. Sievey, a struggling musician from Sale (just around the corner from Sidebottom's beloved Timperley) first taste of fame was as the frontman for the punk/new wave band The Freshies. Although popular in and around Manchester, they were never able to break through to mainstream success, despite their best efforts to appear on Top of the Pops with their biggest hit "I'm in Love with the Girl on the Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk", thwarted by an ill timed strike at the BBC. It was through this band that Sievey was able to express many avenues of creativity, foreseeing the importance of video by creating a multimedia experience for their fans via personalised VHS tapes with painstakingly crafted artwork done by Sievey. In fact, Frank started life on these videos as a super fan of the band whose bedroom was adorned with Freshies memorabilia, before becoming the focus of Sievey's creative endeavours and widespread popularity with his Oh Blimey Big Band, Fantastic Shed Show (featuring the classic TV segment, Bobbing for Betamax) and even playing Reading '92 on the same bill as Public Enemy and Nirvana.

What is apparent from watching Being Frank is that Sievey was something of an untapped creative genius, more than just a novelty act in a papier mache head who once introduced Bros in front of 55000 teenagers who booed him off the stage. He could be considered alongside unheralded artists such as Vivian Maier or an "outsider artist" like Daniel Johnston, and this film will go some way to establish what a creative genius he was, peppered with interviews from previous colleagues and friends like Mark Radcliffe, Jon Ronson and John Cooper Clarke, all completely in awe of Sievey's ability to surprise them with outlandish ideas. One such example is the truly innovative double sided record Sievey released that featured a single for The Freshies on one side and a computer programme lyric video on the other. You can only imagine what Sievey could have done with Frank in the modern YouTube era.

A fascinating creative mind he may be, but the film does not shy away from showing Sievey as a complex, often difficult person to be around. Starting from pushing his future wife into a canal on their first date to his teenage son having to carry his drunk father home from the pub,  he would shrug off bailiffs coming round to take the television away and consistently fail to provide his family with a stable income and eventually land in deep trouble with the taxman, in turn using his tax dilemma to create more content for Frank as he declared bankruptcy. There comes a moment in Sullivan's documentary where we see Frank's head removed to reveal the face of Sievey, nose pinched to create Frank's infamous nasal tone, dripping with sweat and exhausted from performing, and it's only here that we realise Sievey's face hasn't been seen on screen for at least half an hour. There is a pervasive, all conquering aspect to Sievey's performance as Frank that suddenly hits home how much his life became dominated by his comic creation prior to his death in 2010. At least this documentary is able to reveal some of the other work Sievey should be remembered for, and if super fans stick with the film until the very end of the credits they're invited to delve even further into Sievey's psyche.

Near the end of the film his brother recounts a story where Chris jumped into a skip to salvage some cardboard sheets and ponders what he used them for. Could it have been new costumes for his sidekick Little Frank or a prop for a comedy skit he'd just thought of? Well, therein lies the point of the film. Being Frank is an infectiously joyous dive into the creative world of one man who made things because he wanted to, championing those undiscovered artists who see the endless creative possibilities and inspiration that is all around us.

Verdict
5/5

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