Club Tropicana

Film Review: Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story

22 April 19 words: Ian C Douglas

Oh blimey, the Frank Sidebottom story is totally bobbins

Director: Steve Sullivan

Starring: Chris Sievey, Mark Radcliffe, Johnny Vegas

Running time: 103 min

The idea of a ventriloquist possessed by his dummy is a tried and tested trope in fantasy. But does it happen in real life? Can a creative genius come to hate his own creation, as it takes over his career? Does the boundary between performance and identity, between on-stage and off-stage, blur or even melt away?

This film is a documentary about one creative genius who faced such a challenge, by people who knew and loved him. If you are British, you will probably recognise Frank Sidebottom instantly. The huge papier-mâchéhead with a cartoon face, the nasal voice and the absurd, surreal jokes. But, can you name the man inside the mask as quickly?

Yes, Chris Sievey, who died in 2010 from head and neck cancer. This is his biography. From taking LSD with his brother, to his almost-famous band the Freshies, to the rise of Frank Sidebottom, and onto glory, alcoholism, and tax evasion.

Sievey is amazing, his talent only matched by his ability to never give up. He was determined to make it or die trying. An early example is his trip to Apple Studios, where he refused to leave the office until they gave him a contract. So, they did. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, as Frank would say.

Most of all, it sheds light into the sheer inventiveness of this highly unusual mind

Also amazing is the prodigious output of his cartoons and artwork. Did this man ever sleep? Apparently, not much. Part of the punk generation, he embodied the true spirit of punk, which is ‘do-it-yourself’. His legacy is a labyrinth of homemade flyers, posters, puppets, cassette recordings, paintings, scripts, journals, films, diaries, notes… the list goes on. Wacky, eccentric, pioneering, desperate, gifted, obsessive-compulsive are all labels that fit.

And then Chris created Frank. Not so much an eureka moment, as an oh blimey moment. The perfect outlet for his unique brand of humour, style and insanity. Years of failure and poverty were reversed. Frank became a comedy star, equally at home on the pub circuit and children’s parties as he was opening for mega-bands in packed stadiums. He had his own television show. He attracted legions of devoted fans. In short, Frank eclipsed Chris.

And what was it like, spending so much time inside a grubby papier-mâchéhead, with your nose pinched to get that voice? Were the years of discomfort and endless touring worth the adulation of strangers? Was there a cost to his family life? To his health?   

This excellent production interviews his wife and children, his mates, his colleagues and his fans. It paints a close-up, warts and all, portrait of the man. Most of all, it sheds light into the sheer inventiveness of this highly unusual mind. A fascinating and exhaustive insight. And Frank is still very funny, you know he is, he really is.

Did you know? Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story was financed through a Kickstarter campaign in which 1,300 people donated over £48,000

Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story is screening at Broadway Cinema until Tuesday 23 April