I first became acquainted with Frank Sidebottom in the mid-80s. Not his music, mind you, just his appearance. It’s hard for even me to really conceive of a time when you could see mention of a musician without having the ability to zip onto YouTube and get a taste of the music that came out of them. I saw pictures of Sidebottom in magazines like The Face, Blitz, Q, all those British ones that I would grab to read on the subway home. In some weird way, Sidebottom seemed like a British variation of the Residents, at least in my imagination.
When I finally heard some of his music via the Internet some 20 years later, he lived up to my expectations of weirdness by not even remotely sounding like I expected. I can’t even say I really got the joke. It was his version of Paul McCartney’s “Mull of Kintyre” called “Mull of Timperley,” unfolding with a clunky electric keyboard and clumsily-strummed guitar-driven percussive ramble, like something from a bad children’s show, with Sidebottom giving his enthusiastic nasal delivery. What was this? I had no clue. I filed it away as one more musical oddity now forgotten to the world.
It took another decade for me to think about Sidebottom again, thanks to a trailer I saw for the film Frank (Amazon, iTunes). That was a bizarre experience. It seemed to be a movie about Frank Sidebottom, and yet, it didn’t seem to be at all about Frank Sidebottom, because I had heard “Mull Of Timperley” with my own ears and nothing I heard in the trailer remotely sounded like that giddy warble. Then I had heard various good things about the film from different sources, none of them apparently having any knowledge of the movie character Frank’s resemblance to a real life fake person called Frank Sidebottom.
As it turned out, the two are the same, thanks to one of the writers of the film, Jon Ronson. You might know him from the book The Men Who Stared At Goats, which was made into a movie with George Clooney. In his short book, Frank: The True Story that Inspired the Movie (Amazon, iBooks), Ronson provides a charming and very affecting sketch of his time with Frank Sidebottom’s band and some insight to the man underneath the head, Chris Sievey. There’s also this essay version in the Guardian that is worth a read.
Sievey was a Beatles-fanatic who pursued pop stardom with an odd mix of ballsy vigor and stumbling naivete, trying to build a career of clever power pop with some occasional punk edges through his band The Freshies (Amazon) and also solo. I’d put Sievey in the same vein as guys like Andy Partridge or Captain Sensible, people who took sounds that weren’t so outrageous really and ran them through a personal filter that added an air of eccentricity that you could just put your finger on. Something was slightly off even if it was right there where it should be, and in some ways that can be more fascinating than being a total crackpot — eccentrics seem to exhibit more consistency, so the appreciation can build.
Sievey’s life is also well-covered in Mick Middle’s Out Of His Head (Amazon, iBooks), which is more thorough in its scope than Ronson’s, though far less eloquent — mandatory reading for anyone who is fascinated by Sievey, rather than just interest. Both books, though, make plain the curious case of Chris Sievey, who began drifting away from the “normal” band concept and turning into Frank Sidebottom, part stand up comedy act, part satirical musician, part immersive alter ego — so immersive that a live performance contemporary at the time, Steve Coogan, took Sievey’s intense turn as Sidebottom as inspiration for his own immersive creations, most notably Alan Partridge.
Sievey’s life with Sidebottom was almost antagonistic, to the point where it sometimes seemed as though the fake head was taking over. Sievey, in private, could seem resentful of Sidebottom. As Sidebottom, he transformed into some kind of town eccentric in Timperley, a suburb of Manchester. Chris Sievey, as both authors show, just couldn’t do things the “normal” way, and they both recognize that there are certainly other Sieveys out there.
The film does not capture Sievey’s life (there’s actually a documentary in the making for that purpose), and Ronson reveals that early consultation with Sievey before he died resulted in conceiving of the film as a fable that represents the essence of Sievey’s life. And that’s exactly what it ends up being and that’s the film’s power. It’s a fable for anyone who just doesn’t quite fit in with the culture, anyone who is just on their own wavelength and content with that, peppered, Ronson says, by research on the lives of Daniel Johnston, Captain Beefheart, and even The Shaggs. But it’s also an incredibly complicated one, thanks to the decision to put the main character, John (Domhnall Gleeson ), a stand-in for Ronson, in the position of not only the audience watching the madness unfold, but also as a stand-in for the whole of popular culture, as he accidentally infiltrates Frank’s band, interacts clumsily with the other band members, and tries to steer the band’s destiny into something he — and us, the audience — can understand.
In the film, John finds his time at a retreat with the eccentric band fronted by Frank (Michael Fassbender) recording their album to be a preamble to life as he always desired it. He was convinced that they were heading to stardom. As if to force this along, he clandestinely posts videos of their rehearsals on YouTube for the world to see. More importantly, he constantly tweets his experiences.
That’s the real key. The film portrays the modern experience as it has sadly evolved, where your experience is augmented by a meta-commentary that makes the experience more about what the meta-commentary offers about it and how it is received to those reading the meta commentary, than what the experience actually is. Through this dynamic, you are so groomed to going over an experience in order to make it make sense to an invisible audience in your head that you can be blindsided to what is actually going on in the experience. You don’t experience an experience personally anymore, you are just a conduit for multiple others to experience it.
Unfortunately if your audience is all of pop culture and pop culture is by it’s nature a watered down experience because it must be palatable to median, then your meta-commentary of your experience is bound to miss the challenging, complicated parts of it.
That’s exactly what happens to John, who leads the band on a mission to conquer the music world at the SXSW festival, unaware that the insular world he’s been inhabiting is falling apart around him, and in turn, taking the complete wrong message from Frank. Without the head, Frank is whatever, whoever, he is, Frank is only Frank, but with the head, he is an enigma, and other people’s perceptions of him and his talent grow from that initial enigma.
The problem is, the head might function as a barrier between Frank and the world, one which offers identity and expression that escapes him without the head on. John has no clue of the person lurking inside the head, he only has the mythology that the head creates. John’s meta-analytical live tweeting of his life also points to a self-awareness that Frank does not have. Would such a performative self-awareness cancel out Frank’s honesty and make it impossible for him even to exist?
The bubble universe of Frank’s big head is not so different from the bubble universe of John’s Twitter account, and this movie shows what happens when two distinct universe collide. Obviously, they are shattered, obviously they cannot go on as the once did.
There is also a problem — John doesn’t seem to have any real talent. It’s up for debate whether Frank does, but the main difference is that Frank is happy with his own work. He does his work and finds satisfaction in doing it. John can’t even get a song written and when he does, it’s usually cliche-ridden and filled with ideas he lifted from other songs. To him, Frank is brilliant because he is so far off the normal wavelength that John can’t even conceive that there’s something out there, existing.
Among the other issues Frank explores is the idea that we have set up a system where the success of creative work is measured by fame and money. This is a stupid system, because it sets up people who are obviously putting forth no effort and just recycling ideas that seem like sure things as the most successful creators. Frank, on the other hand, has ideas so personal, so hard to separate from him, that he can’t actually get them out there in any coherent form, let alone one that is manufactured to appeal to everyone. He is the context for his own ideas, and without his context, there is nothing for people to latch onto. The only way you can get context is to know him intimately, which severely limits his reach in the world. But in that situation, Frank is alive, and his bandmates are happy to be a part of the process.
It’s a hard lesson that Frank teaches, but after reading Ronson’s short real life account of his experience with Frank Sidebottom, I can see how this is a successful fable to Sidebottom himself and all the Sidebottoms out there. It’s heartening. It says it’s okay to be you. It says do what you love and find others that love it so you can do it with them. It says that success is in the eye of the beholder and you don’t have to accept other people’s terms of what that success is for you. It also validates the idea that the work is about the work itself. It doesn’t matter who’s watching or reading or looking or listening. If you make it for yourself, and you enjoy it, then you’ll not encounter anything else quite so sweet.
Biopics are a dime a dozen, and Ronson and company went for something a little more priceless and a lot less common.