On November 27, Magnolia Pictures will release Zappa, a documentary about the life of Frank Zappa (1940–1993), one of the few rock musicians to deserve the appellation of “genius.” (Need evidence? Listen to “Peaches En Regalia” or “The Black Page.”) Though rooted in R&B and doo-wop, the influence of Edgard Varèse and other composers. and the anything-goes experimental ethos of the ’60s, singer/composer/guitarist/conductor/satirist/political activist Zappa’s music is unmistakably unique, as is his idiosyncratic and inimitable guitar playing.
Frank Zappa was, as the movie points out, far more complicated than the typical categorization of him as a brilliant and demanding musical tyrant who didn’t suffer fools gladly and who delighted in skewering any number of aspects of American culture. Though all of this is true, Zappa was much more nuanced and multifaceted, and this two-hour-plus documentary
does an admirable job of bringing Frank Zappa, the man, to light. In the movie, Zappa says, contrary to his portrayal as a curmudgeon, “If you could get a laugh out of something, that was good. And if you could make life more colorful than it actually was, that was good.”
As director/producer Alex Winter stated, “I wanted to make a very human, universal cinematic experience about an extraordinary individual.” (In addition to Zappa’s music, the documentary features a score by composer/producer John Frizzell.)
Zappa fans will be thrilled by this movie, which will be available on most of the major streaming services. I can state this with complete confidence since I am a fan, having seen Zappa and/or the Mothers of Invention in concert about 25 times back in the day and having immersed myself in his work for most of my life. (Zappa was a workaholic
ZAPPA AT A GLANCE
Alex Winter’s documentary on the life of the iconoclastic musician offers a rounded portrait by focusing mainly on interviews and biographical material and going light on performance footage.
Video quality ranges from rough to clear and direct, a reflection of the quality of the source material.
The audio is excellent; the dialogue is distinct and the music is full-bodied, with a good tonal balance, detail, and depth.
and released 62 albums during his life; 53 posthumous albums have been issued.) His wife Gail and son/producer Ahmet granted Winter, producer Glen Zipper, and the creative team access to Zappa’s vast vault, which contains hundreds of audio and video tapes and film reels, much of them unreleased. The inclusion of this archival material (wait until you see the scenes that show it) gives Zappa a depth, richness, and authority that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. The home movies of Zappa’s childhood and teen years alone are worth the price of admission.
Zappa features an abundance of interviews with Frank Zappa, along with Gail Zappa and other key figures in his life, including former band members Ruth Underwood (whose mallet percussion playing is a key element of much of Zappa’s work), “stunt guitarist” Steve Vai, Mike Keneally, Ray White, Bunk Gardner, Ian Underwood, and Scott Thunes. (When an interviewer asks Zappa, “You were always a renegade against the music business. Why?” Zappa replies, “Because most of what the music business does is not music.”)
The film progresses in chronological order, beginning with Zappa’s early childhood (and a fascination with chemistry, explosives, and gas masks, influenced by his father Francis’s occupation as a chemist and mathematician at the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland). Zappa had health problems as a child, which prompted the family to move to California in 1952. California would permeate his musical sensibility throughout his life (and yield his biggest hit, “Valley Girl,” featuring daughter Moon on vocals).
Zappa began composing at an early age, and in the early 1960s was able to purchase a recording studio, Studio Z, where he began his lifelong habit of working constantly on his music. A 1965 incident at Studio Z shaped his distrust of authority. In what turned out to be a sting, he was asked to produce an “erotic” audio tape, for which he was arrested, charged with conspiracy to produce pornography, and briefly put in jail. Zappa covers this in fascinating detail, and the film continues this
level of thoroughness throughout, from the early days of the Mothers of Invention to Zappa’s prolific solo career and his last concert conducting The Yellow Shark with the Orchestra Modern in 1992.
The documentary focuses more on historical events and interviews with Frank and Gail Zappa and others than it does on live concert material. Although there’s plenty of musical content—how could there not be?—this is not a concert film,
and the movie doesn’t include an abundance of Zappa songs. (If you want those, there are plenty of live concert Blu-ray and DVD discs out there.) Rest assured though, the musical brilliance, exactitude, and sheer creative power of Zappa’s music permeates the film, and the footage of Zappa, various incarnations of the Mothers of Invention, and Zappa’s rehearsing and performances of later orchestral work provides a riveting look at what it was like to be there.
In particular, the material shot at the landmark Garrick Theater performances in New York in 1967 reveal how Zappa and the Mothers came to realize the importance and impact of performing rather than merely playing. (Zappa commented, “If we hadn’t left Los Angeles, we would have just evaporated after the first album.”) Perhaps this fueled Zappa’s later pioneering work with projects like the 1971 and 1977 musical films 200 Motels and Baby Snakes. As an artist himself (he had a brief early career as a greeting-card illustrator), Zappa was well aware of the importance and impact of visuals, as evidenced by his longtime affiliations with album-cover artist Cal Schenkel and animator Bruce Bickford. (It took 13 months of negotiations with the Beatles to ensure there would be no legal trouble from Schenkel’s parody re-creation of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover in the inner sleeve of the Mothers’ album We’re Only in It for the Money.)
The video quality ranges from rough to clear and direct, a reflection of the quality of the source material. After all, excepting some of the interviews, the footage was shot from the 1960s through the 1990s, before the advent of digital filmmaking and HDTV. I’m glad the documentary’s creators didn’t go overboard with enhancing or “improving” the look of the film, which in my opinion would have been intrusive and would have detracted from the historical look and feel. And the movie would have suffered without the inclusion of the roughly-shot home movies and some of the concert material. The sound quality is excellent; the dialogue is distinct and the music is full-bodied, with a good tonal balance, detail, and depth.
Unlike many music-related documentaries, Zappa doesn’t rush through the later period of Zappa’s life. It’s well-paced, covering everything from his adoption of the Synclavier, an early (and extremely expensive) digital synthesizer; his efforts against musical censorship, including his testifying before Congress in 1985 against the efforts of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC); his importance to Czechoslovakia (he was an artistic hero to the country and in 1990 was designated Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture, and Tourism)—and his illness and the events leading up to his death from prostate cancer.
In fact, a significant portion of Zappa is devoted to his diagnosis and losing battle with the disease. Zappa faces his illness with typical candor and humor, and by plunging with even greater commitment to his work, even as it takes its physical toll. In one scene where he’s rehearsing with the Ensemble Modern, the previously unflappable Zappa struggles to maintain his energy level and concentration—and it’s heartbreaking.
As the film was concluding, I became more and more aware of my one major criticism and dissatisfaction—there wasn’t nearly enough of Zappa playing his guitar. This was an egregious blind spot, since Zappa was one of the most brilliant and unfairly underrated guitar players of all time.
But I think Alex Winter may have done this deliberately.
In the closing credits, Zappa plays a version of “Watermelon In Easter Hay.” For the most part, the song is a long guitar solo, originally heard on the album Joe’s Garage Acts II and III. The song serves as main character Joe’s farewell to his musical career, and it’s one of the most moving pieces of music Zappa, or anyone, has ever produced.
As the closing piece to Zappa, as the guitar playing in “Watermelon in Easter Hay” goes on and on, every note is a reminder of the impact of Zappa’s life, every phrase getting emotionally deeper and deeper in complete defiance of the idea that he was an uncaring and aloof person. By holding back on any extended Zappa guitar soloing until the end, the film magnifies the impact of his music and life, to the point where feeling his loss is simply devastating.