Documentary Review: Considering, remembering and dissecting the legend that was “Zappa”

Just defining who and what Frank Zappa was, just categorizing the music he performed, is daunting enough. Try summing up his life and career in a documentary.

Autodidact and polymath, iconoclast, satirist and gadfly, composer of comic ditties, fusion mashups and pieces for full if somewhat oddly adorned orchestras in “rhythmic polymetric notation,” Zappa cut a huge swath through music, culture and the “culture wars” before he died of prostate cancer in 1993.

Alex Winter’s “Zappa” is perhaps the most thorough Zappa screen biography to come along, and that’s acknowledging how hopeless the job of making The Compleat Zappa bio-doc is. And even this two hours+ film is missing memories from Zappa’s famous (and apparently feuding) children. There’s no mention of his first band, and that famous appearance, as a kid, on a Steve Allen show “playing” a bicycle is left out.

Winter, best-known for being the first half of “Bill & Ted,” but director of terrific non-fiction films on crypto-currency and “The Panama Papers,” frames “Zappa” within Frank’s late life triumphs.

Zappa was so celebrated in Czechoslovakia that after “The Velvet Revolution,” he was brought in and feted, mobbed everywhere he went when he performed there in 1991. The reasons for that are surprising, and explained here.

And his late-life orchestral concerts in Frankfort, Germany with Ensemble Modern are sampled to close the film.

But one thing “Zappa” gets across most clearly is his shows were never mere “concerts.” Modernist, jazzy, “comedy rock” and surreal, they were multi-media events, often with choreography — “happenings” as they could be called in the ’60s, but spectacles to the very end.

An old interview shows Zappa taking a film crew through his vast personal archives, album and concert master recordings, home tapes of jams with friends from Don Glen (Van) Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, Eric Clapton and others, his films and films he did soundtracks for, stop-motion clay animations by filmmaker and fan Bruce Bickford — the works. Winter had access to mountains of material, hour after hour of Zappa interviews on TV and radio, a famous 1970s TV special that never aired.

“Go ahead and bleep it,” Zappa jokes to one New York chat show host who feigns shock at the unfiltered Frank’s 1970s provocations. Conservatives debating him over censoring and/or putting warning stickers on music in the ’80s were left no doubt what Frank thought they should “kiss.” On TV.

The filmmaker spoke with many a musician who worked with Zappa over the decades, from The Mothers of Invention to Steve Vai. Alice Cooper describes him as “our savior,” with Zappa signing Cooper & Band to a record deal that launched them.

Rare footage of John Lennon and Yoko Ono joining Frank and The Mothers onstage captures just how influential the guy was during his Laurel Canyon heydays, in the 1960s.

The Kronos Quartet gets together for a fresh rendition of a piece Zappa composed for them in the ’80s.

The portrait that emerges is complicated and messy, an arrogant, brilliant, condescending and standoffish perfectionist who nevertheless wanted every show to be it’s own
“composition.”

“It won’t be perfect, it’ll be music,” he lectures his accompanists for one show, informing them that he will at times just “show you a chord” and expect them to invent and keep up.

A sexist and a womanizer, “politically incorrect” way ahead of his time, every record he made during his “rock” years was filled with provocations and slaughtered sacred cows.

Zappa kept even musicians he used again and again over the decades at arm’s-length. “You were just a tool” to him, Vai offers, and longtime collaborator Ruth Underwood and others agree.

But few musicians persevered through wide public indifference like Zappa, and few made grander use of every “moment” the culture afforded him. He was disdainful of the dumb drug jokes of his 1978 “Saturday Night Live” appearance. But the show, where he ridiculed disco with “Dancing Fool,” was something of a cultural watershed. Disco died that night.

“Valley Girl” became a touchstone, and remembering its sad origins (Moon Unit, his daughter, slipped a note “pitching” the basic idea under her neglectful Dad’s studio door) colors in his character further — playful music made by a serious, cynical workaholic.

But long before that “break,” all the “cool kids” knew “Watch out where the huskies go, and don’t you eat that yellow snow.” And after “Valley Girl,” America had its most outspoken champion of free speech. Zappa spent much of the ’80s doing interviews on TV and appearing before Congress.

For all the archival Zappa interviews, Winter’s anchor interview here is footage of Zappa’s widow Gail (who died in 2015), the one who “got” him, put up with him and kept the flame of his ouevre alive. Gail Zappa ties most of the disparate elements that comprised Frank together for “Zappa,” from his cultural commentary to his musical idealism.

He didn’t seek fame or riches from his music, Gail says. Frank’s measure of whether a piece was a success was “how close did you get to the realization of the idea as you had it.” Maybe he was never truly satisfied. But what he left behind influenced others, and endures in its own right. Because nobody else ever did it the way Zappa did.

MPA Rating: unrated, some profanity, lots and lots of smoking

Cast: Frank Zappa, Ruth Underwood, Gail Zappa, Steve Vai, Alice Cooper, Pamela Des Barres, Bunk Gardner, Mike Kenneally and Ray White

Credits: Directed by Alex Winter. A Magnolia release.

Running time: 2:07

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2 Responses to Documentary Review: Considering, remembering and dissecting the legend that was “Zappa”

  1. NUMBerger says:

    Please correct the battling conservatives over censorship. Tipper Gore, wife of Sen. Al Gore (D-TN) was a leader of that ill-fated, ill-conceived, and plain evil effort. Ye, there were conservatives involved too… Thanks.

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