Muso's was invited this past Tuesday to an advanced screening of Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story a film by award winning and BIFA nominated filmmaker Steve Sullivan which opens across the UK in March. Before you, the reader, reads any further there are probably (most likely) mild spoilers in this piece. If you're cool with that, keep reading, if you're not cool with that go watch the film and then read this.
I didn't grow up in the UK so I was never privy first hand to any of the antics of Chris Sievey or Frank Sidebottom, but I do fall into the appreciation age bracket and you can bet I would've loved to have been part of the fiasco. Years ago when I first came to the UK I did see the indie film Frank which after seeing Being Frank I understand was only loosely based on the Chris Sievey's character (and not at all on the man himself). Before seeing a film, whether I'm reviewing or not, I try to stay pure, meaning no posters, trailers, articles, anything. I find I'm not searching for anything I might have read about or seen previously but I was aware of Frank. Sullivan's film does a pretty great job tearing down any preconceived notions the viewer may have. When the Chief asked if I'd like to see Being Frank I jumped at the opportunity because I thought I'd witness the birth of a spectacle. Only after watching the film did I realize I wouldn't learn more about Frank , I'd learn more about Chris. In hindsight I'm glad I did, my only regret is I didn't learn more. It's not that Steve left his audience wanting more but how do you sum up a man's life, and his personas, in its entirety in a hundred and forty minutes?
I wanted to learn more about Chris and watch him develop as whatever he decided to be from one moment to the next whether it would be as a musician holding record companies hostage until given studio time or a contract. Or maybe an artist swiping official label letterheads and passing it off as a Top Secret industry insider communication, real 'eyes only' stuff, fooling even the top brass as a PR stunt to gain The Freshies (his band) some much needed attention. The antics of Chris Sievey held the public at large as hostages whether they knew it or not (most of the time not). I think halfway through creating Frank Chris developed Stockholm syndrome if you ask me. Frank was a byproduct of Chris's imagination, another stunt, but quickly ended up becoming an identity enveloping Sievey and everyone around him taking over their lives FANTASTIC! Such were the life and times of one Chris Sievey. In the end, inseparable from Frank Sidebottom.
What I took away from the film was that Frank has an unquenchable thirst which is a completely destructive force for Chris who seemingly has a bottomless imagination and ingenuity and ends up hollowing him out as he eventually spirals out of control turning to drink and substance abuse.
Sullivan somehow manages to gently guide us through the whirlwind of Sievey's life, all the while it feels like a roller-coaster screaming to jump off the tracks but Steve somehow manages to rein it in. The last quarter of the film just left me drained and exhausted however. Although I felt sorry for myself I felt worse for Sullivan who had to slog and log and even edit all this footage and images, most of which we learn were in near ruins found in a basement. It must've amounted to hundreds if not thousands of hours of work! The documentary was made on a shoe-string budget with a contribution from the BFI (undisclosed) and from a paltry sum of a £48,000 which was raised by 2,500 members of the public via Kickstarter. You wouldn't be able to tell though because the documentary is VERY watchable even though I found the end to dragging a bit, that was probably just Frank's fault though.
Animated scene transitions of Chris's journals as his thoughts were written out on lined paper thought by thought dotted throughout the picture pulls the viewer in and embraces them. If there's one thing that Steve's film manages to create it's a candid environment that feels unique to the individual watching and listening, like any good story teller does. The curtain is pulled back on a man's life, we're brought deep inside Chris's life, and to the bottom. It's intimate and personal but not soppy. It's got a life of its own moving and jumping through one event to the next culminating in the life of a talented person who wanted to leave a legacy behind but likely never realized he was already doing so. I went in wanting to learn more about Frank not knowing I'd leave not having learned enough about Chris. Maybe that's how everyone felt that knew him. He liked to spend time alone but wanted an audience at the end, says his former wife Paula at one point. The film takes the audience along for the ride that was Chris's life dipping in and out all aspects which have been thoroughly documented by Chris himself and those around him including his family, friends, and the media. We're taken through milestones like his bands, dreams, marriage, kids, Frank, separation from his wife, scandals, fame, infamy, divorce and death.
Nothing is left untouched. The story is unfolds from the perspective of Chris's former wife Paula, their two sons Stirling and Harry, daughter Asher, brother Martin, ex-bandmates, agents, managers and even a former employer. Just about everyone who's ever been at one time or another an integral part of Chris's life has been opened up and left bare I hesitate to say 'for us' because it feels like it's just 'for you'. The interviews are all shot tightly framed and at low angles like someone telling a story to a child. I don't know how Johnny Vegas became part of the roster, maybe that's just what he does? He's even ended up in my life that one time when he nearly burnt a set I was on, but there he is, empty Guinness at his feet talking about Chris and Frank.
Chris's life was like the Russian Matryoshka dolls, open one up there's a family, open another there are The Freshies, another, Frank, another, Little Frank, will we ever get to the last doll to find the man that wants to make a living solely off his imagination in music while chowing down on burnt cheese and beans on toast? With Chris the end is never an end, it's another opportunity for something to be really fantastic ...even taxes. Just after the halfway point we see Chris's face for the first time after removing Frank's sailor head in front of the camera from the deck of a boat, for the first time since he donned it in his younger years in the film. He has visibly aged and looks the way I feel, a bit haggard. If this is how I felt after an hour-forty what did his family, friends and the people around him feel like after a lifetime? What had Sullivan felt like after years of working on this story? I recommend going to watch the documentary and finding out for yourself.
Walking out of this film I was reminded of a Hunter S. Thompson quote I'd read in Hell's Angels, “The Edge... There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.” Chris and Steve go over the edge so you don't have to, the least you can do is buy the ticket and take the ride. it is are the ones who have gone over.” Buy the ticket and take the ride.