There are many things intrinsic to the British identity, we’re moaners, we’re friendly (mostly) and most precious of all, is our eccentricity.
Nowhere was British eccentricity more evident than in classic children’s television, Mr Blobby would only ever work in the U.K. anywhere else, he’s the stuff of nightmares.
One bastion of those Saturday morning programs in the late 80’s-early 90’s was Frank Sidebottom, ostensibly just a man in a suit with a giant paper machè head, he was irreverent and surreal and had a character of his own.
There was a film a few years starring Michael Fassbender loosely based on the Frank character, but this film is different, it explores the life of the man beneath the mask Chris Sievey, and how Frank came to be.
Telling the life story of Chris Sievey from pop wannabe to bizarre cult success with his Frank Sidebottom character, while also detailing the hardships and obstacles Chris faced in life.
Documentaries are very difficult to critique. When you’re reviewing a narrative film you can delve into the story why it exists and what it’s telling, when you delve into a documentary, you know what the story serves, that it covers a real-life topic, and it’s harder to work with, but a great documentary, a documentary told from a place of love, is just as enjoyable as any work of fiction, and Being Frank truly is a piece of documentary straight from the heart.
I had the pleasure of attending a screening that included a Q&A with the film’s director Steve Sullivan, which gave a unique insight that would have otherwise been lost. I learned that the film was a seven-year labour of love, to a subject the filmmaker held close to his heart, and you can’t fake that kind of sincerity in a factual production. It is easy to detect an insincere documentary, and this is certainly never insincere.
On the surface, a figure from children’s television of yesteryear seems like an odd choice for a documentary, but, as with most things, dig below the surface and you find the fact is stranger than the fiction.
Unsatisfied with simply living life by other people’s rules, Chris Sievey was a flighty, creative genius that few people understood, but someone who constantly created nonetheless.
The film includes both highlights from Chris’ personal archive as well as talking head interviews with those closest to him, including his family, all of whom share stories varying from heartfelt and touching, to bizarre and hilarious, as good a tell to Chris Sievey’s character as any, I suppose.
I often say, the way to tell someone’s popularity is how they’re perceived in death; and if that’s the case, Chris -and by extension Frank – we’re far more revered than perhaps he knew, which is the ultimate sadness. The film was made possible by crowd-funding, and to me, that shows how many people were interested in hearing the story of the man beneath the paper maché.
The choppy editing in some parts only serves to build the mystique of anarchy of Chris’ life, told through many anecdotes from friends, family and colleagues, told with a tone of real affection, through the good and the bad, it’s easy to see why the people featured held Chris in such high esteem.
Sorting through such a massive archive (by Sullivan’s reckoning, Chris’ personal archives contains 400 hours of material alone) and editing a coherent and enjoyable documentary from it all speaks volumes of the building hand behind it all. It is a towering achievement to tell the story of one so complex so definitively in a two-hour run time, I’m sure there were great moments left on the cutting room floor, but what we’re left with is a breezy, informative and emotional document of a life lived in defiance of any established system, a life lived purely to entertain and bring joy, not only to others, but to himself, a life, in many ways, well lived.