The continuing fascination with 90s Manchester’s anarchic, mystery comedy maverick Frank Sidebottom reaches its apogee with this beautifully assembled documentary.
Steve Sullivan has done exemplary work here, fishing around a horde of memorabilia and “mouldy VHS tapes” to put together a fond portrait of Chris Sievey and his papier-mâché headed alter-ego Frank Sidebottom.
Frank’s already been the subject of a film that starred Michael Fassbender (albeit mainly hidden by that outsize head), and that odd film’s writer, Jon Ronson features here as do John Cooper Clarke, Mark Radcliffe and Johnny Vegas. It’s very much a Northern thing.
Probably too northern for me to truly appreciate but the doc is actually far more interesting than the movie, finding a way behind the mask and into the mind of Frank’s creator, Chris Sievey, about whom I confess I knew nothing.
It’s like one of those classic horror movies about ventriloquist’s dummies, when the puppet overtakes the inventor, only here, Frank himself invents a little Frank dummy which also steals the show from him, so we’re working on two levels of deflected, dubious genius in an act that mainly found favour in raucous pubs in Wigan or Altrincham.
Frank’s head was well-known at the time, far more as a symbol than as an actual performance piece and he’d pop up on kids telly or footy show and some people would find him far funnier than I ever did.
But I laughed here a few times and found the travails of Sievey and his bids for pop success very touching, boosted by the affectionate remembrances of his put-upon ex-wife and his long-suffering children, as well as those of his many collaborators and band members.
You don’t have to have known Frank or his act to like the doc – there’s plenty of him (enough of him, you might say) in clips here. It’s a peculiarly British film. Someone points out, probably wrongly, that Salvador Dali said if you want world fame you have to first be as local as possible and Frank revelled in his town of Timperley, in the chip shops and football team, in the high street and pubs. Still, world fame eluded him – even his scheduled appearance on Top of the Pops was cancelled due to a strike – although he’s firmly in cult pantheon now.
There’s even an exhibition on at the Manchester Central Library about him, about Chris and all the gubbins and bobbins he accumulated, all the juvenile comics and toys and posters and footy programmes and fanzines and jokes which piled up, all the self-released records and tapes, all the brave attempts and noble failures.
Sievey was subsumed by Frank but gets his time in the spotlight in Sullivan’s lovely, plangent film, an ode to DIY determination, creativity, drunkenness and despair, driven by hope and the promise of maybe getting a laugh.