Alex Winter's new documentary is an in-depth study of an iconoclast.
There are few artists as musically polarizing as Frank Zappa — a person is either turned on by the pure boundary-breaking wildness of his output, or repulsed by exactly that. At the center of a creative storm of collaborators across many media, he combined freedom from limitation with a feverish determination to create a body of music and art that adheres only to the very specific logic of one very unorthodox brain. And that can be pretty off-putting for anyone accustomed to, say, verse-chorus-verse structures, or songs that were made to be beautiful.
Which is why Zappa, Alex Winter’s 2020 appreciation of the artist’s life and work, is such a surprising pleasure to watch. It’s a must for fans, of course, in part because it offers tantalizing glimpses of work from Zappa’s vast private library of personal recordings, but the film works at least as well as an introduction to those who have heard about the legend but never delved in.
That’s because ultimately, the film is less about the music than about the singular composer who made it — and less about his rock albums than his overall impact, which included innovative orchestral pieces, anti-PMRC crusading and a stint as Czechoslovakia’s Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture, and Tourism.
Despite his subject’s profoundly unconventional style, Winter makes a wise decision to keep the narrative roughly chronological. The Zappa family story starts in a Maryland town so well-stocked with military-grade poison that every resident is issued a gas mask. Frank’s early efforts aren’t musical but they are consistent with his later work: He splits his hobby time between editing together filmstrips and playing with explosives. An album by experimental French composer Edgard Varesè with an “evil, vile” reputation, combined with his friend Don Van Vliet’s obsession with R&B music played by black musicians, introduce young Frank to the thrills of taboo music and the hypocrisy of cultural norms. He starts on drums, moves quickly to guitar, and by the time he graduates high school is composing for orchestras.
Zappa’s music career gets off to a rough start: Opening a cheap studio in Cucamonga, California, he suddenly finds himself framed and thrown in jail by people who don’t know what to make of him. He quickly concludes that small towns “are wonderful, if you like that kind of stuff,” but that his future lies in the city.
The film does impressionistic takes on early Mothers shows in LA and the Garrick Theater in New York, where Zappa hones his unrelenting work churn of writing, rehearsal and performance, using both chopped-up footage and testimonials. Some of the most penetrating insights on Zappa as both musician and genre — “You couldn’t say ‘Oh yeah, that’s rock and roll,’ cos it wasn’t; ‘It’s jazz,’ no; ‘It’s pop music,’ no; ‘Well what the hell is it?’ It’s Zappa” — come from Ruth Underwood, a young conservatory-trained percussionist who was so thunderstruck by Zappa’s Garrick Theater residence that she felt her entire understanding of music history shift to accommodate this new force.
A host of collaborators chime in, including musicians like Steve Vai and Alice Cooper but also Bruce Bickford, the artist responsible for the mind-bending clay animation of 200 Motels and other Zappa art, but what keeps it interesting is that they’re actually discussing the collaboration, not the details of a rockstar soap opera. Even Gail Zappa, his wife through the thickest and thinnest of times, says she saw him as “a composer, not a rock & roll musician,” and talks more about their work than their children or the details of their interior life, while the film wisely avoids playing to heavy-handed emotional resonances.
Winter shows the artist without telling the audience how to feel, and doesn’t shy away from some of the less desirable aspects — his participation in the ambient sexism of the era and culture, the implied selfishness that allowed Zappa to be as prolific and focused on his work as he was. In including this though, it really helps one appreciate how much his collaborators — perhaps most notably his spouse — believed in him and his art. Zappa is thus as much a celebration of Zappa’s music as the teamwork and collaboration that helped him realize his projects.
But the voice we hear the most is Frank Zappa’s, articulating the logic and process that guided his creative process. His life was spent composing not just music, but the circumstances of freedom. He was a refuter of common sense and the tyranny of respectability, and he spent his life invalidating distinctions of genre, medium and decorum, trying to find some common shared values that exist beyond cultural norms.
“A lot of what we do,” he says, “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. And something has to be done before America scarfs up the world and shits on it.”
Zappa is available for streaming January 22-30 as part of the St. Louis Film Festival’s Best of Fest series. Go to cinemastlouis.org/best-of-fest for tickets and more information. Watch the trailer for the film below.
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