Thursday 4 April 2019

Ol' big head: "Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story"

Trying to explain the work of Chris Sievey, better known as Frank Sidebottom, to anyone outside the UK seems an all but impossible task. Here was an extraordinarily localised phenomenon: born of the North and oft observed gallivanting around the Mancunian suburb of Timperley, Sidebottom was more or less inexplicable, and inexplicably funny, when viewed by those of us living only a few miles south. Some rationale was provided by Frank, Lenny Abrahamson's deft comedy-drama of 2014 with Michael Fassbender in the title role, though that film - penned by Sievey associate Jon Ronson - insisted on being its own abstraction of the Sievey-Sidebottom story. Its success, however, has prompted the crowdfunded doc Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story, which makes a point within the title of separating creator from character. Sievey, for his part, was the young pop wannabe with aspirations of being the new Lennon or McCartney, only to be hit with a flurry of rejection letters and an unfair share of bad luck. What should have been his breakthrough hit - with the Freshies' post-punk anthem of 1980 "I'm in Love with the Girl on the Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk" (more localism) - had its progress checked by the corporate joykillers at Branson HQ; a scheduled Top of the Pops spot was nixed by an industrial strike. With a young family to support, and bailiffs at the door, Sievey's response was to don an outsized papier-mache head, slip on a noseclip, and reinvent himself as a heavily ironised idea of a superstar, a prefabricated cult item that effectively allowed him to shut out this cruel world and carry on living inside his own head. The joke was that Sidebottom was always a bit bobbins as a stage performer; the kicker was that the chastened Sievey would never have to show his face in public.

He was also something of a hoarder, as if he knew his talents would someday be recognised, and make his even his most trivial ephemera worth a sift. It's here that Steve Sullivan's film outdoes itself, descending upon the lock-up the Sievey-Sidebottom archive called home in order to lay out those rejection letters end to end and parse the many C60 and VHS recordings the subject left behind. (One especially evocative artefact: a tape on which the young Sievey can be heard laying down some deep-and-meaningful guitar riffs, only to be interrupted by his dad reminding son to wash the car.) This is a rare Kickstarter project that makes the grade as cinema, just by the proliferation and ebullience of Sievey's bright visual ideas: not just Frank's head, with its Betty Boop-like features, but the Sgt. Pepper-meets-Yellow Submarine mural he painted on his son's wall, and the hand-drawn bits and pieces he issued to mark every last one of Frank's public appearances. Generating masks and marionettes, pop songs and posters alike, he might have been appropriated as a multimedia artist - if not quite our Laurie Anderson, then certainly a back-up Vic Reeves. There's certainly a clear link between Sidebottom's stage and screen shambling and the DIY Dadaism of Reeves' Big Night Out, though Sievey found it far harder than his contemporary to sustain his success, came to overspend wildly, and sought out less healthy escapes besides. (There may be a cautionary tale in here for Chris Spencer, the emergent national treasure behind the Coldwar Steve Twitter account.)

The film is at its most celebratory in describing the evolution of the Sidebottom persona, and how Sievey succeeded in making a one-dimensional gag the centre of an entire comic universe. (An American equivalent finally presents itself: Paul Reubens as Pee-wee Herman.) Sullivan has all the corroboration at hand: the tapes of Sidebottom on the telly, running wild in Timperley; the grand introduction of Little Frank, the ventriloquist's dummy via which Sievey-as-Sidebottom could deconstruct the finessed deceptions of light entertainment ("Don't expect a lot from him, he's only cardboard"); the arrival of Little Frank's puppet girlfriend Denise, who had no sooner been unveiled than lost her head in a touring accident. There's something very touching in the way Sievey, having initially collapsed under the weight of Frank's head, then came - after a long spell in Jobseeker's Allowance exile, and the briefest of careers in animation - to embrace the persona as his greatest hit, one that had made and continued to make people happy up until his death from cancer in 2010. And there's something poignant indeed about the fact the film's subject never got to unmask himself publicly on stage, as planned in the diaries Sullivan unearths here, to receive the plaudits he'd so clearly desired. The film has to stand alone as its own form of reveal.

The chronological approach is enlivened by testimony from Sievey associates, loved ones and comedy peers, including several illustrious graduates of Sidebottom's Oh Blimey Big Band (Ronson, Mark Radcliffe), who even now appear to be good-naturedly scratching their heads at what exactly they got involved in. In retrospect, Frank seemed like Ronson trying to make linear sense of the kind of messy, random behaviour not uncommon to young creatives with depressive tendencies, and to afford his Sievey surrogate the state of grace - a clearheadedness - which the real Sievey struggled to achieve. Sullivan uses his archive to open up a portal into some alternative, more playful vision of Thatcher and Major's Britain, one in which it was possible for Sidebottom to drift into view behind Andy Crane, make mischief for Andrea Arnold (yes, that Andrea Arnold) in the No. 73 studio, interview Edwina Currie, and - like a ludic Ian Curtis - transform "Love Will Tear Us Apart" into a rousing pub singalong. That all these endeavours were in some way inexplicable, even to admirers, now seems more than ever the point: as scene elder John Cooper Clarke sagely observes, Sievey "was pushing some mystery envelope, and making the public his accomplice". Perhaps the rejected singer-songwriter was showing us how arbitrary the line is between success and failure; maybe he just resigned himself to arsing about. Either way, he committed to the bit absolutely, and has here generated a documentary with a great deal more colour and energy than, say, The Joe Longthorne Story.

Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via the BFI.

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