Although the feature film Frank was only loosely based on a damaged musician who still managed to function with his band enough to make freaky, trippy music, the real life Frank Sidebottom’s (real name Chris Sievey) story was left largely out of that fictional telling. But the fact that anyone would choose to make a living as a comedic musician wearing an oversized paper-mache head is certainly enough of a curiosity to warrant a documentary, which is exactly what we get from director Steve Sullivan in Being Frank.
Although told in a fairly traditional style, the film’s greatest resource is Sievey himself, who began his career as a pop musician in Manchester with a minor amount of success. A consummate graphic designer and artist, Sievey also had a hand in designing his band’s album art and shooting music videos, which in the early 1980s was a relatively new field he fully embraced. We get a fairly deep dive into Sievey’s experimental (but still quite catchy) musical style before he shifted into the Frank persona. He kept Frank’s true identity well hidden for quite some time, not wanting to let people know that this comedy creation was, in fact, the struggling musician that many locals had seen play over the yeas. But when Frank’s popularity took off more strongly than anyone thought it might, Sievey was almost forced to make it his primary gig and source of most of his income.
Not surprisingly, the musician who wanted to court some amount of serious recognition turned into the local court jester, which was a source of frustration for Sievey, who became self destructive and mentally exhausted playing the character day after day. Being Frank is filled with wonderful song and video clips of both personas. It’s difficult to deny that there’s something weirdly charming and engaging about Frank Sidebottom that’s as much about the music and jokes as it is about his pantomime-like movement and a handful of low-budget side characters that Frank tended to play with. The popularity of the Frank character seemed almost destined to either fizzle out naturally or explode in a blaze of glory by Sievey’s hand; weirdly a little of both ended up happening, as illness and alcohol took their toll.
The interviews with family, friends, bandmates and other local comics are exceptionally culled together by Sullivan, who also had access to Sievey’s personal notebooks, audio and video tape library, and other artifacts from Frank’s heyday. The movie blends humor with tragedy in a way that makes for both a wonderful profile of a gifted, misunderstood genius and a cautionary tale about being careful what you wish for in the world of the famous. Here’s hoping that a career-spanning soundtrack makes its way out at some point so that people can fully appreciate Sievey’s talent, humor and visionary production.
The film opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.
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