Steve Sullivan’s Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story explores a rather unique, eccentric artist named Chris Sievey, who had some success as a new wave/punk musician before finally finding a measure of success as a life-sized marionette named Frank Sidebottom.
His trademark papier-mâché head made him look like a children’s cartoon character come to life, and indeed, he did spend part of his time as the Frank character working on children’s shows. But as Sullivan’s documentary, which recently debuted at the SXSW film festival, illustrates, the Frank character ended up taking on a sort of life of its own. Did the character become a man or the man a character? Where did one end and the other begin? These are two of the central questions in Sullivan’s film. Chris Sievey wanted to be a successful musician and performer, but when he finally found that success, it was under a mask, and a different name.
Going in, I knew nothing about the guy, though the trailer certainly intrigued me. Certainly, as someone who loves all things weird, this movie had a lot going for it. I’m happy to report that I was absolutely riveted by this film. It’s hard to be a struggling artist without seeing yourself in Sievey, at least a little. And so the basic outline of his life is made quite clear to those of us who have burned with desire to be recognized for our art.
Sievey’s band, The Freshies, almost broke through with their single “I’m in Love with the Girl on the Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk,” but couldn’t rise above local cult status. And so when Sievey created Frank, he was supposed to be a minor character, a caricature of an obsessed fan. Then the character started to become more popular than the band itself. Well what would you do?
Certainly a great deal of us would ride that wave as high as we could, whether or not this was exactly the way we wanted things to play out. And so that’s what Sievey did, and though he didn’t become a megastar, he was constantly on various TV shows in the Manchester area, and he had a successful career as a stand up comic and a musician. As, as is the dream of many creative types, he was able to make a living as an artist, at least for a while.
And he was quite the artist. In addition to music and standup comedy, he was also a visual artist, actor, and animator. He dedicated his life to exploring any place that his imagination wanted to take him. As best I can tell, this was the only thing that motivated him. Certainly his wife and children weren’t as important. And he put absolutely no stock in practical things like paying phone bills and the like if he was able to use that money for creative pursuits. Yet, his ex-wife and children hardly have a bad thing to say about him in their interviews. His wife even kind of admits matter-of-factly that he cheated on her all the time after his standup gigs, while laughing the whole thing off. Oh, you can tell it hurt her, and deeply, but she sort of accepts it all as part of his nature. There’s virtually no one, from family members, bandmates, and even influential British comedian Ross Noble, who has anything negative to say about the guy.
The methodical pacing of Sullivan’s documentary really gives us a chance to know the guy. A good third of the film is spent documenting Sievey’s life before he created the Frank character, as a musician who was part of the early DIY tape trading and video art scene. If the tone of the film is celebratory, it at least celebrates the complete man, not just his most famous creation. Sullivan clearly admired the guy, having directed a short film about Frank Sidebottom while Sievey was alive. But he doesn’t shy away from Sievey’s vast character flaws. As a result, we get a little closer to understanding about the creative process and becoming a success, even if it’s not in the way you originally envisioned for yourself. Very few of us are going to end up exactly where we dreamed, but we should always be open to letting this crazy ride called life take us where we didn’t know we wanted to go.