(USA, 128 min.)
Dir Alex Winter
Few artists are more mercurial, misunderstood, and sorely missed during these surreal times than Frank Zappa. From his earliest days on L.A.’s Sunset Strip surrounded by “freaks,” through to his guitar-fuelled jaunts in the ’70s, the synclavier-effused ’80s, and to his climactic orchestral works before his untimely passing in the early ’90s, Zappa churned out one of the most fascinating and divisive discographies in pop music history. With this authorized biographical documentary from Alex Winter (The Panama Papers, Deep Web) we’re treated to a unique and intimate—but far from hagiographic—look at Zappa with his contradictions on display.
Any great music doc must meet a key standard – it must ideally work as well for a person completely new to the subject as does for long-time fans yearning to be gifted something unique. Winter’s film succeeds in achieving this balance quite remarkably. While going beyond the surface of an artist who has over a hundred recordings to his name, the main thrust of contextualizing Zappa in his various modes is handled particularly well. Especially beneficial are the newly uncovered tidbits from Zappa’s famous vault, the so-called “Utility Muffin Research Kitchen” that houses thousands of hours of recordings and visual documentation that have never seen release. This find makes the project feel new even for viewers well steeped into the world of Frank Zappa.
Winter’s film began as a crowd-funded project, and the vast majority of the funds were spent on the restoration and preservation of many of these unseen materials. The result for fans of Zappa is a beautiful presentation of the shows at the Garrick theatre, or glimpses of the John Lennon gigs that have long been coveted. The film is interspersed with contemporary talking-head interviews from former collaborators, including Steve Vai, Pamela Des Barres and the late Gail Zappa, Frank’s long-term partner.
Ruth Underwood, who served as Zappa’s percussionist through many years, provides the most nuanced and powerful take on the man. It is through her that we best understand both the genius of Zappa and how much of an asshole he could be. She conveys how these contradictory elements were critical to Zappa’s art and how his philosophy affected the work he created and the positions he took. Moreover, her performance “The Black Page” with Zappa’s “Vaultmeister” Joe Travers resurrects one of Zappa’s most notorious compositions. It illustrates simultaneously the astonishing musicality and the obnoxious, mathematical complexity of the composer’s work. The result is breathtakingly beautiful, and an absolute highlight of the project.
These paradoxical collisions have always made Zappa’s work more powerful. They illuminate him as a man who found beauty in the near-childish I-IV-V repeated chord sequences of “Louie Louie” that form the basis of rock-n-roll, through the mind-bending experimentation of Varèse’s “Ionization,” a complex, percussion-laden piece of mid-century orchestral music that gave Zappa his most salient yet overtly ironic mantra – “the present day composer refuses to die.”
This refusal to adhere to notions of “high” or “low” art resulted in some of the most complex, silly, puerile, and profound musical outputs from the last century. These diverse facets are all part of what Zappa referred to as “conceptual continuity.” This notion, whereby everything was part of a single project—Do-Wop records, London Symphony Orchestra recordings, Senate testimonials against censorship, his work as a trade representative for a newly liberated Czech Republic—makes any summation of the man’s life especially challenging. Winter’s film deftly provides both a welcome overview as well as a deep dive when required. Zappa rides the balance beautifully to provide a portrayal of the man that doesn’t even pretend to be definitive.
Even superficial fans will recognize which elements of Zappa’s career receive relatively short shrift. An entire doc series could explore the rocker’s anti-conformist views that often were slammed as racist or misogynistic. It’s difficult to see how something like “Thing Fish” would be perceived today, let alone some of the more robust and ribald examples employing poodles for pleasure or a vat of urine left to have creatures grow within as it rots. Yet others will find during these politically charged times a strong voice for liberty and freedom in Zappa’s testimony. Viewers may find themselves both admonished and energized by Zappa’s erudite if consistently sarcastic musings during interviews.
It’s safe to say that Winter’s documentary is a welcome addition to Zappa’s continuing conceptual continuity. This is a challenging story of a challenging man told sympathetically and with frankness, so to speak, resulting in a film that lives up to the grandeur and paradoxical nature of its subject. On the one hand, it merely scratches the surface and, on the other hand, it provides a welcome and robust entry point into Zappa, his life, and his art.
Years in the making, Zappa manages like few music docs to live up to immense expectations set by its subject matter. It manages against the odds to find in a two-hour running time a narrative that speaks to the hundreds of hours of recorded output left behind by the man. It should spark renewed interest in someone still too dissonant and divisive for radio play, and transmit to future generations how this complex, acidic, and astonishing artist helped shape a half century of music from a wide variety of genres. Despite all the odds, Zappa’s work provides a soundtrack that continues to resonate for those with open ears. Its refusal to die remains laudable, and Winter’s Zappa provides just the kind of electroshock boost needed to keep its beat ticking for years to come.
Zappa opens in select theatres and on VOD November 27.