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Posts Tagged ‘Jon Ronson’

Coming out of Us, and still digesting what we had just seen, Olinka and I cast a prospective eye over the posters advertising coming attractions. ‘Oh, I’ve seen that. That’s a good movie,’ she said, indicating a picture of a suited man, his head cropped from the frame, holding a large papier-mache fake head. It looked very much like this:

‘That’s not the Michael Fassbender film,’ I felt obliged to inform her. ‘That’s a documentary about the real guy.’

‘What real guy?’

‘Frank Sidebottom. Chris Sievey,’ I said. ‘He was a… a…’ Words failed me, as I imagine is not uncommon when trying to describe Frank Sidebottom’s act.

‘I’ve never heard of him,’ Olinka said, Frank Sidebottom’s limited degree of fame in his early-90s heyday not having penetrated the Moscow area, apparently.

Nevertheless, curiosity was piqued, and almost exactly a week later Con-Con and I were hanging around outside the Phoenix waiting for Olinka, who was as usual threatening to be late for the film. I noticed something startling coming down the street in our direction.

‘Oh my God,’ I said.

‘What?’ said Con-Con, looking about her in confusion.

‘Look over there. There’s a man in a Frank Sidebottom head coming this way.’

‘Where? Who?’ Con-Con said, peering vaguely the right way – for all of Con-Con’s many wonderful qualities, her eyesight is not much better than her sense of direction. ‘That’s just a man in a hoodie… oh… no it’s not… ooh, that’s creepy…’

I had some sympathy with this gut reaction. The cinema staff were not overly surprised to hear of this visitation, the Frank-lookalike having informed them he was coming. He had apparently been promised free popcorn if he did indeed actually turn up wearing the head, although the question of how he was actually going to eat it was still open. The fake head, when it arrived, was a slightly funny colour and somewhat squashed-looking, but it was still recognisably an avatar of Frank Sidebottom, and I imagine the people sitting behind its wearer were relieved when he took it off prior to the start of the film.

Normally this sort of thing going on before a low-budget documentary would be quite unusual, but as the film itself makes clear, slightly different standards apply in the world of Chris Sievey and Frank Sidebottom. The focus of the film, produced, directed, edited, and possibly catered by Steve Sullivan, is certainly on the former. Sievey was a dedicated fan of the Beatles (and, to judge from his artwork, the output of Gerry Anderson, Gene Roddenberry and Terry Nation) who from a young age decided to devote his life to music. Preferring to retain complete creative control rather than work within the industry, he was prolific but only marginally successful, fronting a new wave band called The Freshies who seem to have been genuinely unlucky not to get the big break they probably deserved.

The story so far is charmingly weird enough, told through a mixture of interviews and archive material (a taped demo of one of Sievey’s early songs is interrupted by his father, demanding to know when he’s going to wash the car), and documenting a genuinely idiosyncratic career – at one point The Freshies released a single for which the B-side was a ZX-81 program that produced a primitive video for the A-side, while a later incarnation of the band attempted to represent the UK in Eurovision with a song about aeroplane seatbelts.

Things get truly peculiar with the arrival of the Sidebottom phase of Sievey’s career: Frank Sidebottom was conceived as a comedic front enabling Sievey to effectively be his own support act, a freakish, guileless man-child who was The Freshies’ biggest fan. In the end, however, Frank’s own popularity ended up eclipsing that of his creator, and he ended up becoming more successful than The Freshies ever were.

There are many good things about this film, but one of the things it fails to communicate to the uninitiated is just what a deeply strange and disconcerting figure Frank Sidebottom arguably was when he initially rose to fame. Sievey’s name was never mentioned, and he never broke character or removed the head while performing. The vast majority of audiences had no idea who this was, or indeed what he was trying to achieve: Frank Sidebottom’s stage act included stand-up comedy, musical numbers, and (theoretically) ventriloquism. The writer Jon Ronson, a one-time member of the Frank Sidebottom Oh Blimey Big Band, probably gets closest to the truth when he suggests that Sievey was a performance artist, with Sidebottom a sort of animated surrealist installation, bridging the line between the deliberately-bad-for-comic-effect and the genuinely inept.

Frank Sidebottom’s career ran the gamut from Saturday morning kid’s TV (one archive clip shows an encounter between him and Andrea Arnold, later to transition from TV presenter to Oscar-winning film-maker) to playing the Reading Festival in front of a crowd of thousands of fans. But, the film suggests, not all was well inside the head. There is something potentially interesting here, with different interviewees presenting different ideas as to exactly what the relationship between Sievey and Frank actually was – was it just an act, a performance? Or was there something more complicated and psychologically troubled going on? The film is so affectionate towards Sievey – not surprisingly, given various members of his family were involved in making it – that it kind of skates over this issue, although it is strongly implied that Sievey grew to resent the popularity of Frank, considering him to be a limit on his other creative ambitions.

One of the things that the film does make absolutely clear is the ceaseless creativity which characterised Sievey throughout his life: music, comedy, art, animation, film-making, examples of all of them are on display. It seems like he never really stopped, regardless of whether the piece in question was intended for public consumption or not – Frank Sidebottom started his own football team in the early 1990s, and despite this being an amateur, Sunday-league side, Sievey produced match programmes packed with detail, jokes and art solely for his own amusement.

You have to admire and perhaps be just a tiny bit jealous of that kind of relentless creative fire – that’s how I feel, anyway. The film acknowledges that there was a darker side to Sievey’s life, with friends and family being candid about some of the troubles, particularly in his later years, but this is overall a film filled with love for its subject, expressed by some quite famous faces too – in addition to Ronson, there are contributions from Johnny Vegas, Ross Noble, Mark Radcliffe, John Cooper Clarke, John Thomson, and others, none of whom have a genuinely bad word to say about him.

Sievey’s greatest success as a performer was in his live shows, his chaotic, semi-improvised act never quite transferring to TV (the producers intended to insist on rehearsals, which were not really his thing), and I have to say I was always quite ambivalent towards Frank Sidebottom when he appeared on the box, finding him at least as weird as he was funny. The movie does a good job of proclaiming Sievey to be an overlooked creative genius and possible national treasure; it is touching, funny and very entertaining. Well worth checking out.

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A little-known revelation from the annals of archaeology is the fact that an American tobacco beetle has been discovered buried in volcanic ash on a Bronze Age site in Crete. The implications of this are startling, and for a long time I could only begin to imagine the impact this must have had on professionals and historians – everything they understood about how early civilisation functioned must have been shaken to the core. It must have been shocking and unsettling, almost impossible to believe. Now, though, I can empathise with them much more easily, for I had a similar reaction to the news that they were making a movie about Frank Sidebottom.

Frank Sidebottom? A movie about Frank Sidebottom? Even now I can barely assimilate the words, and this is after having seen Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, the film in question. For anyone not familiar with Frank Sidebottom – which I suspect is a sizable majority in any sane gathering – he was a cult figure on the music and comedy scenes, primarily in the Greater Manchester area, and mainly in the 1980s and 1990s. He was instantly identifiable, due to making all his public appearances wearing an oversized fibreglass head: one of those people you instantly recognise as either a one-off comedic genius, or as a slightly creepy and annoying pest.

frank-movie-poster-michael-fassbender

Given this, you could have probably have cast virtually anyone as Frank in this movie: but they have managed the surprising (not to mention baffling) coup of luring Michael Fassbender into occupying the fake cranium in question. For all that, Fassbender gets the ‘and’ credit in this film; top billing goes to Scoot McNairy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Domhnall Gleeson (enjoying one last flush of indie credibility now he’s been cast in Star Wars: Episode JJ).

Gleeson plays Jon, an earnest young English singer-songwriter who does not let a little thing like lack of talent impede his pursuit of his dreams. Then, a chance encounter with a touring American band gives him a remarkable opportunity: when their keyboard player is sectioned, he is invited, first to fill in on a gig, and then to assist them in recording their first album. On the team are manager Don (McNairy), psychotically aggressive theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and, at the heart of it all, the charismatic, enigmatic, inspirational figure of Frank himself…

Well, as you can perhaps see, this is not really a biography of Frank Sidebottom (nor indeed the man behind the head, Chris Sievey): all the characters are fictional, there’s no mention of Timperley, the name ‘Sidebottom’ is never used, and Fassbender opts to play Frank with a midwestern drawl rather than a nasal Mancunian whine (on reflection we should perhaps be grateful for this last). So in a sense this is not the movie it first appears to be, for all that Sievey gave his blessing to the project prior to his death in 2010.

This is perhaps a little surprising, as the script has been co-written by Jon Ronson, best known as a journalist and screenwriter these days, but a one-time member of the Frank Sidebottom Oh Blimey Big Band. On the other hand, as I believe I have intimated, the potential audience for an actual Sidebottom movie would be very limited. This is something more accessible and thematic, about wanting to unlock your creativity and really communicate with other people: it just happens to use the idea of a man in a Frank Sidebottom head as its central image.

And for the most part it is very successful. In some ways this slightly resembles This Must Be The Place, being an off-beat globetrotting comedy-drama with a vague musical theme, but the comedy here is broader and the tone less consistent. The story is, let’s be honest, not remotely plausible, but the deadpan absurdity of the whole enterprise is actually rather winning. Gleeson is convincing and likeable as a character who could easily have been slightly annoying, while Fassbender reveals an unexpected talent for physical comedy (as well as for acting inside a big fake head). For the first two acts this is a funny, if somewhat ridiculous deadpan black comedy.

Not sure about the third act, however, in which the band head to the SXSW festival in Texas, only to be confronted by their own frailties and personal problems. The tone here abruptly turns much darker and more serious, and I’m not sure it’s a switch the film successfully achieves. The conclusion is also not entirely satisfying.

But, on the whole, this is not enough to spoil the movie, which is well-made and engaging throughout. It has useful things to say, weirdly enough, about the nature of the creative process and the various coping mechanisms people use to deal with life. It also reminds us that, for some people, madness can be the thing that keeps them sane. In the end it abstracts the idea of Frank Sidebottom and uses him as a metaphor for the figurative masks many people wear when facing the world – also, perhaps, that it is sometimes easier to be an icon than a human being. I’m not sure what dedicated Sidebottom fans will make of Frank – no doubt cries of ‘Heresy!’ will be echoing around Altrincham – but for everyone else this is a likeable and entertaining, if somewhat flawed movie.

 

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