Half-man, half-cartoon, Frank Sidebottom has an air of Pee Wee Herman about him, as an American experiencing Frank for the first time watching this film, that was the first thing that struck me. I remember as a kid getting up and watching Pee Wee’s Playhouse every Saturday morning and I think that’s what British kids did with Frank Sidebottom. He sparked cereal-fuelled Saturdays with his surreal brand of humour where everything is a little bit bouncy, a little bit Technicolor, and a little bit kooky. He’s an indie Peter Pan who never quite grew up, but much like his American counterpart he has a dark side. In fact doesn’t everyone have a bit of spring and shade? Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story is a brilliant insight into the darkness and light that comes with being a creative trying to function, and how success can come in unexpected forms. It is a window to the amazing, and sadly underexploited talent that is Chris Sievey, overshadowed by his cartoon self. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where one begins and the other one ends, it’s outsider art to the nth degree.
Chris Sievey was a Manchester-based, Beatles-obsessed songwriter, artist and musician and one thing I’m impressed by is how amazing his actual real music is. He used to make tapes for people one at a time; each tape a little bit different and completely hand crafted. The Lennon-inspired, Plastic Ono vibe is undeniable… he’s a dab hand with melody and lyrics and the tidbits they play in the film left me wanting more. And there is more! I spoke to Amy Ashworth who was the music supervisor on this film and she said there were loads of beautiful Chris Sievey songs in the archives. His son who features in the film curated the selection of songs we hear in the movie, but I’m excited that there’s more to discover. The film touches on Chris’s mild success with punk rock band The Freshies who almost ‘made it’ in the late 70s-early 80s. What’s refreshing is the unorthodox means of self-promotion Chris explored, which by today’s standards and DIY music culture, turned out to be far ahead of his time… Like social media before social media existed he was a one-man hype machine forging his own non-traditional path.
Frank Sidebottom appeared in the early 80’s and that’s when Chris Sievey disappeared from the public eye. Maybe there wasn’t room enough for both of them, but one is left wondering what happened to Chris, was he okay in there? Frank’s true identity was a closely guarded secret until now. Legend was that he never took his papier mâché head off… but ya know, he must’ve sometimes. Frank’s career led to him hosting his own TV show, playing Wembley Stadium with Bros, releasing records, videos, books, and art exhibitions… a puppet effigy of himself, Little Frank, aided him in his ascent to fame. He became a national treasure with legions of devoted fans. He was essentially a living, breathing cartoon character. His Oh Blimey Band was a motley crew of people who went on to become modern pop culture icons like Marc Radcliffe and Jon Ronson. As shonky and fun as it all seemed they alluded to Frank’s dark side. It was weird, wild fun, but what goes up must come down and this is a twisted tale of split personality. It’s not purely feel-good; this film takes you on a journey complete with ups and downs.
Bottom line is, see this film, it’s great! It’s a fascinating insight to a person with a lot of facets, brilliant, beautiful and flawed, Chris/Frank is the epitome of outsider art, and who doesn’t love an underdog? Just be sure and bring your Kleenex with you, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, it will take you on an emotional roller coaster if you let it. If you don’t know who Frank is, still see it! I didn’t know much about him, and now I’m a fan too. This underdog deserves to be celebrated… Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story is released by Altitude Films on 29th March 2019.
Review by Piney Gir