Director: Steve Sullivan
Cast: Chris Sievey, Paula Sievey, Martin Sievey, Stirling Sievey
Watch Being Frank online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
Directed by Steve Sullivan and funded through Kickstarter, this affectionate and moving documentary tells the story of Chris Sievey, the frustrated artist who created comedian-slash-presenter Frank Sidebottom. Superbly structured and impeccably researched, it simultaneously celebrates Sidebottom’s popularity and examines the toll that Frank’s success took on Sievey’s life.
Given access to Sievey’s seemingly endless archive (including everything from audio recordings to video clips, as well as drawings, fanzines and photographs), Sullivan tells Sievey’s story chronologically, beginning with his early musical ambitions, inspired by his love of The Beatles. He had a band called The Freshies (their novelty single “I’m in Love With the Girl On the Manchester Virgin Megastore Check-out Desk” missed out on chart success through a quirk of fate) and after creating Frank Sidebottom’s distinctive papier-mache head as a costume for a Halloween party, Sievey began to wear the mask on stage before gigs, introducing the band in character as Frank, a self-styled Freshies super-fan.
The character’s popularity soon eclipsed that of The Freshies and, after the band broke up, Frank lived on, making frequent appearances at gigs and eventually getting his own TV show, fronting Frank Sidebottom’s Fantastic Shed Show on ITV.
Sullivan makes full use of Sievey’s extraordinary archive, and, in doing so, he pays tribute to Sievey’s phenomenal creativity. It seems that he simply never stopped doing things, whether it was recording his own songs, writing and drawing fanzines, making scrapbooks of his rejection letters or designing sleeve art. To that end, the film is strongly reminiscent of the 2005 doc The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which gave a similarly heart-breaking impression of a remarkable artist who never achieved the mainstream success he clearly deserved.
Like Sievey himself, the film is acutely aware of the bitter irony that he achieved the fame he wanted, but only from behind a mask. The film explores that idea in fascinating detail, revealing that Sievey saw Frank as an alter-ego or second self, allowing the rush of fame and fortune to go to his already over-sized head. Indeed, Sullivan doesn’t sugar-coat Sievey’s struggles with addiction and mental health, which eventually lead to the loss of his family. The end of Sievey’s life is similarly beset with tragedy – he had plans to reveal his identity to the world and take ownership of his creation, before his untimely death from cancer at the age of 54 in 2010.
Throughout the film, there’s a steady stream of colourful anecdotes from both Sievey’s family (including his brother, his ex-wife and his three evidently artistic children) and contemporaries and collaborators that include the likes of John Cooper Clarke, Ross Noble, Johnny Vegas and Jon Ronson, who fictionalised his own experience in the Frank Sidebottom band for the 2014 film Frank (Sidebottom’s only previous big screen appearance).
By turns heart-warming, heart-breaking and laugh-out-loud funny, this is a beautifully made documentary that does justice to Sievey’s incredible creativity. It’s also one of the best documentaries of the year. Don’t miss it.
Being Frank is available in UK cinemas and on VOD.
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