In “Frank,” the minor oddball indie-rock fable from 2014, the title character was literally a head case: a pathological bizarro, played by Michael Fassbender, who spent the entire film wearing an oversize papier-mâché head that made him look like Astro Boy crossed with Boojie Boy from Devo crossed with the Big Boy mascot. It was possible to watch “Frank,” as I first did, without having any idea that Frank was the film’s fanciful riff on a true-life figure — Chris Sievey, a relatively unknown British musician who, in 1984, after more than a decade of trying and failing to make it in the record business, turned himself into a very different sort of pop star: the fake-head icon Frank Sidebottom, who became Sievey’s on-stage alter ego and, more than that, his mysterious second self.
“Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story” is a documentary, at once acerbic and affectionate, that tracks Sievey’s one-of-a-kind, semi-off-the-rails career. In “Frank,” the Fassbender character was severely mentally disturbed, and in the film’s capstone scene, when he took off his head, revealing himself to be a man who looked like he’d just had a lobotomy, and warbled out a song called “I Love You All,” the entire dawdling curio of a movie suddenly seemed worth sitting through just to behold Fassbender’s haunting off-key intensity.
But “Frank,” it turns out, was almost pure fiction. “Being Frank,” directed with probing archival passion by Steve Sullivan, reveals Chris Sievey to have been a troubled man, and a seriously devoted and obsessive art prankster, but he was anything but insane.
A good-looking chap who craved attention and was prone to alcohol and drug binges, he turned the human-puppet character of Frank Sidebottom into his pathway to a certain kind of winking notoriety. In that sense, he was like the British music-hall version of a reality star. Frank became a cult figure, but Sievey could never figure out how to make much money off him, and inside that sweltering head, where he wore a swimmer’s nose clip, he was an eccentric star-masochist, “famous” only incognito.
Becoming Frank was, for him, the response to (and maybe the punishment for) his failure. Born in 1955, Sievey grew up worshipping the Beatles, and we hear snippets of the albums he wrote, recorded, and self-released on homemade cassettes. He was gifted; the melodies are entrancingly Beatlesque, rendered with echoey production techniques that are rather uncanny attempts to mimic George Martin’s. In 1971, Sievey showed up with his brother at the door of Apple Records, where they were allowed to make a demo tape (Ringo Starr popped in at random during the session). Sievey had his heart set on becoming a recording artist, and to my ears he might have been another Todd Rundgren, but Apple sent him packing, and from that point on all he got was rejection letters. So he formed his own band: the Freshies.
They were pure pop, but they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Freshies tried to market hooky synth ditties out of the Manchester scene, where they came off as uncool outliers next to gloom-rock hipsterados like Joy Division. They did, however, have a UK novelty single that looked as if it might become a breakout hit in 1980. It was called “I’m in Love With the Girl On the Manchester Virgin Megastore Check-out Desk.” Yet the song was cursed: Sievey was forced to get rid of the reference to “Virgin” (because of the retail connection), and after they re-recorded it with a slightly altered title, “Top of the Pops,” the BBC music-chart show that was instrumental in elevating hit singles, shut down for two weeks due to a mechanics’ strike. By the time the show returned, the song’s moment had passed (it peaked at #54). So had Chris Sievey’s shot at stardom.
During this period, Sievey, seen in VHS tapes, looks very much like the bushy-haired pop idol he wanted to be. He markets himself with obsessive control, crafting primitive early music videos, promotional drawings, even an analog version of a computer press kit. He also gets married and appears to be a happy husband and father. It’s the most random of incidents that launches Frank Sidebottom: Sievey built the papier-mâché head for a Halloween party. It was a one-night lark.
But then he wore the head at one of the Freshies’ gigs, posing as a “fan” of the band, and at that moment something inside him clicked. It was as if he’d found his alternate identity: his Pee-wee Herman, his Tony Clifton. The character, unlike the hero of “Frank” (who is mostly silent), was a real motormouth, the put-on version of a working-class comedian — think Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G crossed with Benny Hill. As a character, Frank Sidebottom is very English, which is why in the clips we see of him in clubs, on British variety shows, and, in 1992, hosting his own free-for-all children’s program called “Frank Sidebottom’s Fantastic Shed Show” (Sievey’s short-lived version of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse”), he goes over like gangbusters. He’s the world’s naughtiest Teletubby. But the humor, it must be said, remains a bit twee and parochial. To this viewer, at least, Frank Sidebottom is a kick to look at, in his Monty Python at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade way, but it doesn’t take long for his slapdash comedy to wear out its welcome.
Sievey fell into an alcoholic spiral, losing his wife and family and piling up tax debt, and he gave up on Frank, too. But then, in the mid-2000s, he devised a five-year plan for bringing the character back and making him more popular than ever, and in a funny way it almost worked. There was something about the human-bobble-head image of Frank Sidebottom that kept on giving. (Sievey’s real tragedy may have been that no British corporation ever signed up Frank to be its advertising mascot.)
As an eager probing portrait of the man in the head, “Being Frank” has the fascination of an enduring pop footnote, and it could be the kind of cult film that “Frank” wasn’t. Even if its appeal rests, perhaps, on passing off Chris Sievey as a bigger artist than he was.