Anyone who loves or is knowledgeable about music knows what the name and the ever-so-unique man defines.
Alex Winter’s fantastic documentary, “Zappa,” was made possible by being one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns since crowdfunding became a thing. In only one month’s time the campaign achieved over a million dollars.
Frank Zappa’s legacy is strong.
Winter was granted unrestricted access to Zappa’s archives and uses his “Lost Ark” discovery to craft an important film about one of music’s true originals. You may love him, or you may hate him. You may groove to his sounds or run from them. I would argue that anyone who sees, nay, experiences this film will never be able to consider Zappa as anything less than genius.
Director Alex Winter is smart to use a structured narrative to follow Zappa’s journey through a music world that, frankly, he had nothing but contempt for. He did not want to sell tickets and T-shirts and he could give a shit if people “got” his work or not. Frank Zappa just wanted to play his music and experiment and create.
It is quite fascinating to see how his eclectic musical tastes came to be. He loved classical orchestrations but the norms (Mozart, Beethoven, etc.) bored him. The composer he really latched unto was the innovative Edgard Varese, who composed bizarre symphonies of sound that did not fit the preferred classical styles. Varese created pieces with sound as living matter. The composer delighted in head-scratching reactions by listeners who were afflicted with “stubbornly conditioned ears.” His pieces are wild and weird and full of noise. For some, they are madness. To others, the works are genius. An understanding of this contrast is an understanding of Frank Zappa.
Maybe sometimes the music is indeed madness. Zappa argues that himself. But accept it. Let it wash over you. “I do my music for people who like music,” Zappa once said. In an interview clip he proudly states, “a lot of what we do is designed to annoy people to the point where they might, just for a second, question enough of their environment to do something about it.”
Frank Zappa was experimental beyond any of our imaginations. With one hand on his guitar and the other shoving its middle finger to the bullshit-heavy music industry, Zappa was brilliantly defiant in his genius.
In 1967 when living in Los Angeles Zappa formed The Mothers of Invention and swept the Whiskey-A-Go-Go, crafting their wild on stage performances and building their fan base from night to night through wild and unique compositions that lasted almost thirty minutes. Hippies were hippies and freaks were freaks but no one had seen anything like The Mothers of Invention.
The groups first album “Freak Out!” became a time capsule vinyl troubadour for the “freaks” of the late sixties. The response to the album leads to one of the film’s best anecdotes.
We are privy to the footage of the time Zappa later hosted Saturday Night Live and participated in skits that made fun of the fact that Zappa didn’t do drugs. It was unbelievable to the cast members (and to many of his fans) that the musician did it all straight.
We are also allowed to hear Zappa comment on the SNL moment. He hated that sketch, calling it “stupid.” Nobody ever accused Frank Zappa of holding back.
We follow Zappa and The Mothers to Laurel Canyon where he meets his future wife Gail and sets up a psychedelic recording utopia that doesn’t last, as some strange people called “The Manson Family” moved much too close.
As the peace and love aura of the hippie era was dampened by the murderous actions of the Manson followers so went The Mothers of Invention which Zappa disbanded in 1969.
What comes next is Frank Zappa’s tumultuous journey through a music industry that did not know what to do with him. Perhaps it should be said that Zappa refused to let them do with him what they wanted.
The musician certainly held the industry in contempt and was thrilled to find his freedom when he finished out his contract and started his own label, Zappa Records. The label would go through the eighties until its next incarnation, Barking Pumpkin Records. To hear the usually cynical, but almost always correct, musician speak of his relief with his newfound freedom should be inspiring for any artist.
The film teaches us is that Zappa considered his concerts live rehearsals. Although happy that people would pay to hear his works, the musician wasn’t interested in forming a bond with his audience.
You may not leave a Frank Zappa concert with a Bruce Springsteen-esque feeling of brotherhood, but your mind will be opened, whichever side of the Zappa fence you live in.
We learn so much about the dedication Zappa brought to his compositions. It is edifying, watching how he would cut himself off to create, more times than not at the expense of his own family life.
Zappa in home movies with his children, Ahmet, Dweezil, and Moon Unit.
These are private, loving moments the world has never seen. Zappa often holds his children and is smiling with them.
In these clips, helped along by the words of his wife Gail, we get a sense of the heart inside this man. While moments such as these were often fleeting, there was no question about whether he loved his children or not.
But the passion of his music always got in the way. It is both beautiful and heartbreaking to learn how Moon Unit wrote her hit song “Valley Girl” to be able to spend time with her preoccupied father. The irony being that the song became a big radio hit and a Pop Culture staple of the eighties, everything Frank Zappa detested.
The interviews are full of insights. Beyond his wife Gail, we hear from band members, as-close-as-he-would-let-them-be friends, and the occasional person who just happened to be there when it all happened, such as protégée and fan Alice Cooper and the most famous groupie in the rock & roll universe, Pamela Des Barres. Both knew of his genius and his abhorrence of the music industry.
Alice Cooper was there to see it rise and not fall but go sideways. Cooper states that Frank Zappa sabotaged himself for the pure purpose of never having a song on the charts.
The most potent voice is Zappa’s own. Hundreds of hours of interviews and personal recordings were pieced together by director Winter and his editor Mike J. Nichols. The two created a cohesive thread as if the man himself was in our living room, telling us his story. The mountain of information Winter allows us to witness becomes so seamless it felt that I had known Frank Zappa all my life.
As we move from his upbringing and fascination with making home-crafted movies to his time with The Mothers of Invention through the seventies and on to the eighties where he became the spokesperson for the push against music censorship, Alex Winter takes us through Zappa’s dense life of creation that finds him conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and later becoming Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism due to his connection to Václav Havel. A fitting title for a man who hated labels.
In one of the film’s funnier moments, U.S. Secretary of State, James Baker says to Havel, “You can do business with the United States or you can do business with Frank Zappa.” Guess which one the former Czech president chose?
The director chooses the proper quotes and music passages, fusing them with the right footage at the opportune time. There is not a misstep in the structural arc of Winter’s engrossing film.
And what of the music? Frank Zappa’s music is many things to many people, likely. Untethered from expectation and constantly chasing his sonic obsession, Zappa’s music isn’t label-friendly. Wherever Zappa is now, I am sure this still makes him smile.
As his former timpanist Ruth Underwood says regarding one of his pieces, .”.. you couldn’t really categorize it. You’d say that’s rock & roll… that’s Jazz… that’s pop music… No, it wasn’t. Not at all. Well what the Hell is it? It’s Zappa!”
Alex Winter’s “Zappa” is one of the best documentaries on an artist to come along in a long time, one that should find its way to the Best Films of 2020 section with little effort.
Zappa baby, Zappa.