My first exposure to the iconography & persona of the cult British comedian Frank Sidebottom was in the 2014 black comedy Frank, where he was portrayed by Michael Fassbender in a Fleischer cartoon-style paper mâché mask that he never removed onscreen. It turns out that luchadorian gimmick of never appearing in public unmasked is just about the only detail from the “real” Frank Sidebottom’s life that was at all factual. The appeal for savvier (and, let’s face it, British) audiences in seeing a documentary about Chris Sievey, the musician behind the Frank character, is in finally getting a peak under that mask to learn about the artist who created it after decades of cheeky mystery. The appeal for relative newcomers like myself, lured in by the Fassbender film or the Pop Art iconography of the Frank mask on the poster, is just learning about the Frank Sidebottom art project in the first place. What was Frank’s whole deal? Why do a specific subset of British pop culture nerds care so much about a decades-long bit built on a single sight gag – a sinisterly cutesy paper mâché mask? In either case, whether you’re looking to learn about Frank Sidebottom or about Chris Sievey, Being Frank is a definitive, helpfully informative documentation of both characters from start to end.
In the early goings-on of the film, it appears as if Sievey were a Daniel Johnston-type figure: a troubled young Beatles fanatic who lost his goddamned mind inside his own weirdo art after a few youthful experiments with LSD. Survey’s self-obsessive back catalog of home movies, Outsider Art drawings, and moldy cassette recordings of early music projects certainly recall the raw material of the wonderful documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, but comparing the two artists’ personal lives in a direct 1:1 parallel does them both a disservice. Despite how he was portrayed in Frank– which is now clearly a work of fiction – Sievey was not some mentally ill free spirit who lost his true persona inside the Frank costume. A few myth-building interviewees in the documentary (mostly art dealers & punk scenesters) will try to convince the audience that there was no telling where Sievey ended & Frank began, that their personae were inextricable. That doesn’t seem to be true to the family & friends who knew Sievey well, though, the same way a luchador or an Andy Kaufman type would only drop the bit once in private. Give or take a decades-long bout with alcoholism, there wasn’t anything especially mysterious or enigmatic about Chris Sievey as a human being. He was just an incredibly driven, meticulous artist who wanted to turn his passion for songwriting into a lucrative profession, and Frank was his best chance to make that dream happen.
In that way, Sievey most reminds me of the microbudget backyard filmmaker & songwriter Matt Farley, who regularly churns out a massive flood of multimedia content for a small crowd of dedicated fans. So much about Sievey’s feverish commitment to the Frank Sidebottom project is distinctly Farleyesque: his aggressive self-promotion, his habitual publication of his personal phone number, his detailed record of his personal sports stats (in this case, revolving around a minor league soccer team), his obsessively fussed-over hand-drawn zines, his absurd dedication to prideful small-town localism (in this case, the village of Timperley). That’s not a sign of madness or possessed genius. It’s just a driven artist with a superhuman work ethic. Sievey’s story affords Being Frank drama & pathos in other ways, though. There’s a heartbreaking story to tell here about a fame-focused artist who almost made it big as a Legitimate Musician (most notably with his sarcastically chipper New Wave group The Freshies) only to be overshadowed by a paper mâché novelty act of his own creation. There’s even more heartbreak in interviews with his close family who had to suffer his self-absorbed bullshit whenever he’d put his various projects over their day to day wellbeing – which is always the risk when you love or depend on an artist. I just think framing Sievey as an outsider weirdo instead of a tireless, hardworking showman is doing his artistry a disservice, and I’m saying that as someone who still loves the movie Frank for its own merits as a work of fiction.
Maybe you’d disagree with me and believe Sievey to be a mad, tortured genius who lost himself inside Frank’s paper mâché head. Maybe you wouldn’t think he’s a genius or an impressively productive artist, but rather a half-arsed troll who lucked into a pre-Internet meme that happened to pay his (many, long overdue) bills. Whatever the case, Being Frank does Chris Sievey the service of contextualizing Frank as just one (wildly successful) project in the artist’s decades-spanning portfolio, offering a fairly comprehensive view of who both Frank & Sievey were separate from one another. It’s a thorough document of a bizarro art project and a necessary counterbalance to the fictional mythmaking that’s sprung up around it.